Online Parent Groups: Support at Your Fingertips
For parents, information and empathy are as close as your computer. Learn how online groups work, how to interact safely and find a group that meets your needs.
By Linda Broatch, M.A.
, Scott Moore
Would you like to talk about parenting issues with other people who are raising children with learning disabilities (LD) or AD/HD? Do you need a support group but have little time in your schedule? Are you willing to invest a little time to learn some basics about finding an online (or “Internet-based”) community that provides that person-to-person contact and support? If so, then read on.
What are some reasons I might want to consider joining an online community?
Parenting a child with LD and/or AD/HD can sometimes be an overwhelming and isolating experience. Support groups are helpful but aren’t always easy to access, particularly if you live in a rural area or have a busy schedule that doesn't permit you to attend regularly. Increasingly, parents are going online and joining Internet-based communities that focus on parenting and educating children with LD and/or AD/HD.
If you’ve never used the Internet to look for an online community, the advantages it offers may not be obvious at first. Maybe you’ve got some worries about how safe online communities are. Or, you may wonder if your computer skills are up to the task.
In one sense, an online community is a lot like a “face-to-face” support group. It is a collection of people with common goals - for example, to support the learning and development of their children with LD or AD/HD. These groups of people also share some common values, which are often expressed in the approach they use to pursue their goals, for example, by investigating the most up-to-date, scientifically-based information on LD or AD/HD.
On the other hand, online communities are different from face-to-face meetings in that you can’t see the people you’re “talking” or “listening” to, and you’re writing back-and-forth rather than talking with them.
In essence, though, online communities are just a gathering of people who are reaching out through their computers to communicate with others who have similar needs and interests. Like face-to-face communities, each online community has its own rules, guidelines, and “character.” Some of the rules and guidelines are more formal - user agreements and privacy policies, for example - and you explicitly agree to abide by these when you join the community. But communities also develop some informal, unspoken guidelines that mainly concern how members treat one another, for example:
- How newcomers are integrated into the group
- How people handle differences of opinion
- How they show respect for each other
What are some potential benefits of online communities?
- Connecting with others who share common experiencescan be a huge relief from isolation. Sometimes, parenting a child with LD or AD/HD can make you feel as though no one in your family, neighborhood, or town really understands your situation. Searching for support online gives you the power to reach beyond your immediate borders, into other cities, states, and even countries to make connections with families whose child rearing challenges are similar to your own.
- Online communities can connect you with experts who have graduated from the "school of hard knocks," parents who have learned tips and tricks for surviving a parent-teacher conference or for managing “homework wars” with a child with LD or AD/HD.
- Online communities offer flexibility in the time, location, and pace that you participate. Many are available to you 24 hours a day, using any computer that has access to the World Wide Web or to an email program, so you can “drop in” when you have the time and opportunity. Depending on the format of the particular community, you very often have time to read at your own pace, think about how you want to respond, or even do a little research before you write a response.
What are some challenges I should be aware of?
- Misinformation might be exchanged in online communities. Sometimes, online community members misunderstand, misinterpret, or unknowingly communicate inaccurate, second-hand information about learning disabilities and related laws, services, or research. Unfortunately, it is also the case that some people you encounter online hope to exploit the myth of the quick-fix in order to sell products, services, or “cures” for LD and AD/HD. Online communities require you to be a critical consumer of information.
- Very few organizations are able to provide expert guidance to the discussions in their online communities. Unlike the situation in some face-to-face support groups, most online communities don't have a person to play the role of a therapist or moderator, or someone to serve as a topic expert. So, members work together to guide the discussion, or to explore and evaluate sources of information. In addition, even well established online communities can sometimes steer off-course into discussions unrelated to supporting children with learning or attention problems. When you investigate possible online communities to get involved with, assess how focused each group is and avoid those that may frustrate you.
- There are limits to what the written word can communicate. At this time, nearly all online communities use some form of written communication to connect people. When you communicate face-to-face with others, the words you use, your tone of voice, and your body language combine to convey the full meaning of what you say. Miscommunication online can lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, and even hard feelings. This can be especially true when the topic is sensitive - such as parenting a child with LD. When you communicate online, it’s best to think before you write and to give others the benefit of the doubt.
What does it mean to be anonymous in an online community?
Being anonymous in an online community has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, being anonymous may allow you to feel more comfortable about revealing details of your situation that feel too personal to share in your family, school, or community. Often, sharing personal details online opens up the possibility for deep discussion with others. But, while openness can be desirable, it also calls for a few cautions. Remember that, just as you are anonymous to others, they are also anonymous to you. When you describe your parenting issues online, make sure that you are not giving out personal details that, taken together, would allow someone to identify you or your family.
Finally, the truth about being anonymous online is that you and your fellow community members are neither completely anonymous nor completely identified. Over time, personalities and identifying clues can give you a better feel for the people in your online group and to what degree you want to trust them. And, ultimately, there are ways to use either technology or the law to reveal someone's identity, if the situation calls for it.
Different Ways Online Communities Connect
- Mailing Lists: Sometimes called listservs, these communities allow large groups of people to send email messages to everyone who subscribes to the "list." All you need to do is have access to an email address and subscribe to the list. Check for mailing lists that allow you to receive a digest of each day's messages.
- Message Boards: Message boards (also called "bulletin boards") are online spaces where people can post questions and discussion items for others in the community to read and comment on. An advantage of message boards is that the discussions are often kept for a long time (sometimes years) and are usually searchable, which can help you find a community that's right for you.
- Online Chats: Chats are real-time (live) online meetings where questions and answers are processed immediately. Most chats (particularly those with experts or celebrities) are scheduled and have a moderator who chooses which questions will be answered. Because they can move fast, you may find it difficult to read quickly enough to sustain in-depth conversations.
What are some practical tips for finding an online community to call home?
- Look for communities that fit your needs: Check websites affiliated with or sponsored by organizations you are familiar with or already trust. Be aware that companies who sell LD-related products or websites that focus on one or limited issues may be slanted to sell products or convince you of a particular way of thinking. Check to see whether the community displays a focus or purpose whose values you agree with.
- Give it the intuition test. Many online communities encourage prospective members to "lurk," or enter the community and read messages, before posting. By observing the discussions taking place you can get a feel for the kind of people and topics that make up that community.
Even though there are some risks involved when you step into an online community, the rewards can be significant and lasting. It might take some time, but it’s likely that you’ll “just know" when you’ve found the right group to call your community. That's the time to jump right in.
Example of a group that allows mailing list options: Time Out for Families - Parenting a child with special mental health needs
Example of a message board: AD/HD - Meds and Education
Example of online chat: Net Haven - Scheduled chats of Specific LD Issues
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