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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.
  • Read the rules: In addition to a stated focus, check to see if the community posts usage agreements (sometimes called “Terms of Service” or “Terms of Use”) or behavior rules. Make sure you are comfortable with the rules, and assume that any practice that is not prohibited could be allowed.
  • Are you allowed to be anonymous? Check for a privacy policy (sometimes called a “privacy statement”) to see if you are comfortable with how your personal information is used and when it might be legally obtained. Also, check to see whether the community requires or just encourages you to use your real name or to publicly offer personal information. Choose the rules that best suit your needs.
  • 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

© 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/6/2012:
"I'm new to the site and dealing with a child with ADHD, My son is now 14 years old, is grades go up and down. But since the divorces its been getting good at first. Then when the children visited with my ex-husband and they come back home, its hell getting him back on track again. Well on May 16, 2011 my ex-husband went to court and told a lie, that our son was getting bad grades because of me. Well this man did go to the school for any time in the classroom with the child I did all the parent involvement with both our children edcuation. So the judge believed him, after showing the judge all my child progress reports and report cards. But my ex-husband then said he make over 85,000 a year and he can provide better for the children and he can make him get good grades. Well like I said this man had our child since May 16, 2011. On that day our son end up in the hospital for a week, after that he went back to school, was sent home everday at 12 noon for a week in a half. Then! our son was suspended from school for the rest of the year, and had to repeat 7th grade again. Since then our son has been back in the hospital two more times, Then school started back up again, our son was suspended from school again for a week, then back to school and child-protective services visited my son in school that day. Well that night, my ex-husband harressed our and tried to force things down our son mouth, our son told him to leave him alone, well my ex-husband kept picking with him, so my son pulled a knife on his dad, then the dad had him sent to juvenial and then to live at Bridge for two weeks, then they let my son go back home with my ex-husband again. My son was suspended again from school. So my 15 year old daughter has her friends over, and our son says hello and then my daughter goes and tell my ex-husband her brother is bothering her, so my son tries to tell his side, My ex-husband doesn't want to hear what our son has to say. So my son tells my ex-h! usband he goiing to jump out the window. So then my ex-husband! put him back in the hospital, but not at Pine Rest Hospital. This time he took him to Forest View Hospital. My son has been there since Febraury 19, 2012 and has not been there to visit with him or to take our daughter to visit with her brother, well child-protective services came to the hospital on Febraury 24, 2012 to talk with my son, so then the dad comes to the hospital on Febraury 25, 2012, my son said they didn't say anything to each other, he didn't even hug his dad good bad. He didn't want his dad to touch him. My son told the doctor that he wants to stay at the hospital or go back to Bridge or Juevinal if he can't come back to me. I have attorney working on my case, but its been very stressful on me, because I left Grand Rapids, Michigan and move to Texas with my oldest son, because I was being blamed for everything about my son. I've been n Texas since August 26, 2011. "
03/9/2011:
"I am new to this site and would like to address some concerns I have with my 8 year old son who was evaluated at his attending school and recently diagnosed as having autisim spectrum disorder. He began recieving speech and language services during kindergarten. I addressed vulnerability concerns for my son because he is very gullable, very easily manipulaed will follow to fit in. He is a very well behaved and well mannered little boy. I am overly protective and have to admit I am very reluctant when it comes to him being away from me because of his vulnerabilities. I need to overcome this I am the mother of 4 2 grown and moved out and a daughter age 13. "
02/14/2011:
"I am definitely interested in finding an on-line support group, which i've never had or done before I have a 7yr old son with Autism/PDD and unfortunately his father my ex-husband is in denial so I never had any support from him. I have felt alone in this, and simply didnt know where to start, I have done research but feel there is stil so much more to know and learn."
11/4/2010:
"Hi, I would like to know if anyone knows if Public Schools by law has to offer REading support for those kids with ADHD/ODD that does not knows how to read yet. Stated in his IEP..What can I do? What can I do? please advice.."
07/19/2010:
"How can I join the online Parent Groups? I would really love talking to someone that has knowledge of what I experience on a daily basis. Even my husband tells me I'm exaggerating about how tough my job is with our little one. My oldest child tells me, my brother is really using your emotions to get what he wants. My son has been Professionally diagnosed with his disability. He's very, very intelligent and that's what make family and friends feel that I am going too far with my so called complaints. I need help! "
12/8/2009:
"Thank you for this opportunity. My 7 yr/o son is a LD 2nd grade student with some struggles. As a separed father I'll apreciate any advice in parenting and help him the better that I can. Thank you. Luis"
08/24/2009:
"My childs enrollment is being revoked due to a residency issue,honestly i think its a little more personal if you ask me,my child was attending a school outside our district for three years, now they are questioning her residency.The principal that has only been there for a year now has changed a lot of rules,and i think she has a grudge against us.What do i do?"
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