Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Technology Trends: On-Demand Online Parent Support Resources
By Susan A. Knight
Social Work Today
Vol. 17 No. 6 P. 8

Consider the following message that appears on the homepage of a popular parenting website: "Whether you're wondering how to handle a specific challenge, just figuring out your child-raising approach, or ready to tear your hair out, you've come to the right place." Right away, parents know they've arrived at a safe place where they can ask questions, share concerns, and be honest about their frustrations without feeling judged or condemned.

A growing number of parents are going online to search for information and support resources. As a result, it's now standard practice for parenting experts and coaches to have an online presence where they offer their services. These services may be quite varied, but they usually include a set of on-demand resources that allow parents to access information and support on the spot, whenever and wherever it's needed.

"With so many of us so 'plugged in,' parenting educators have really found a way to meet parents where they are," says Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, parent coach, educator, and mindfulness facilitator. She believes that on-demand parent support has been, and continues to be, the wave of the future. "These resources provide easy-to-access and cost-effective ways for parents to gain the support they need without having to worry about things such as finding a sitter, leaving the home, etc., which are huge constraints for parents," Zeichner says.

A Wealth of Tools and Features
For parents who choose to go online for parenting support and assistance, a wealth of tools and features are available to accommodate different situations and circumstances. Parents can find targeted information quickly and easily based on their immediate need.

For instance, a quick glance at a website's list of frequently asked questions might reveal that a child's "strange" behavior is actually quite common. Blog posts and articles can provide tips and strategies for dealing with different behaviors, and worksheets can be downloaded for easy, ongoing reference. Online videos with parenting experts allow parents to pick up practical tips in just a few minutes. More recently, podcasts have become increasingly popular, as they allow parents to listen to a speaker while performing some other task.

An added feature of many of these sites is the option to sign up to receive regular e-mails and notifications. When someone is receptive to learning and they have taken that initial step of seeking support, this type of follow-up communication can help to keep that learning momentum going.

Community Support and Validation
Another component to many of these sites is the inclusion of online parent communities and forums. These online spaces provide a safe place for parents to share experiences and exchange information while also receiving support and validation. Within these spaces, there may be discussion threads devoted to specific concerns or parenting situations, e.g., raising twins or raising children with special needs. Participants can receive helpful input and encouragement from other parents who have direct experience with the relevant issues.

In addition, many of these online communities include the presence of parenting experts and health professionals. These specialists are equipped to respond to the more serious questions or concerns that a parent may have, often with a short turnaround response time.

"Online parent support groups/communities offer parents a great amount of support and validation that they are not alone," Zeichner says. These groups allow parents to see that no matter how challenging, frightening, or frustrating their situation may appear, in most cases what they're experiencing with their child is completely normal and something that other parents have gone through as well.

Parenting Support in Any and Every Area
Where do parents want support? In just about any and every area imaginable. A routine scenario is that of a parent looking for information and support to effectively deal with a behavior they don't want their child to engage in. In younger children, this might include things like hitting other children, throwing tantrums, or acting out repeatedly. A parent might be seeking input on how to discourage a child from playing with their food, or perhaps they're feeling frustrated and maybe even overwhelmed by a toddler who won't stop playing with the contents of their diaper.

It's easy for parents to become concerned, even alarmed, when their child displays such unwanted behaviors. It can be extremely reassuring to learn that these behaviors, while undesirable, are neither uncommon nor abnormal.

In some cases, the child isn't necessarily exhibiting what the parent believes to be harmful or unacceptable behavior. However, the parent is uncomfortable or unsure of how best to navigate unfamiliar terrain. For instance, a parent might not know how to respond to a young child displaying a strong interest in guns and war games. With a teenager, a parent might feel ill equipped to navigate areas such as sexuality, birth control, and substance use. For these parents, it can be helpful to receive guidance on how to tackle these areas confidently.

In other cases, parents are looking for input and guidance on how to manage their own behavior. For example, they want to learn how to set boundaries without being overly rigid. Or they're looking for strategies on how to manage their own emotions so they can address routine child-raising challenges more calmly and effectively.

Along with addressing unwanted behaviors and areas of concern, these parenting resources provide a rich array of tools to support proactive learning and training. These tools provide guidance on how to parent more effectively and offer ways to promote desirable behaviors and attributes in children.

Awareness of Alternative Parenting Strategies
In general, parents tend to employ familiar child-rearing techniques and strategies, usually based on how they themselves were raised. With this experience serving as the default, many parents are completely unaware that there are alternative, and often more effective, parenting strategies available to them.

Online resources provide an excellent opportunity to introduce parents to different parenting techniques and concepts they might not be familiar with. For parents who are unfamiliar with terms like positive parenting, conscious parenting, and relationship-based parenting, being introduced to these concepts can be a new experience that is both illuminating and inspiring.

Catalyst for Continued Training
In addition to free resources that can be accessed immediately, many of these sites offer the opportunity to pursue further training. Once again, the options are varied, including one-on-one consultations with a parenting coach, in-depth training programs, online classes, and live classes with other parents.

But how likely is it that users of the free, on-demand services will opt to receive additional training via some type of comprehensive, paid program? Do those freely available resources serve as a catalyst for parents to explore things further? It's not guaranteed, but it is a possibility.

In some cases, crossover between users of the two categories of offerings isn't really expected. Instead, the parenting expert or organization offers different sets of resources (e.g., free vs. paid) in order to accommodate two different audiences. In this case, it's unlikely that the target audience for one set of resources will wind up utilizing those other resources which they deem to be less of a fit for their needs.

On the other hand, especially in the case of solo practitioners, it's quite possible that early success utilizing those free resources may pull someone in and prompt them to pursue additional training and services.

For example, consider an overwhelmed mother who is facing challenges with her preteen daughter. As the mother reads an article by a parenting coach, she feels that the coach understands her situation and can truly empathize with what she is going through. The challenges haven't gone away, but she feels a lot more hopeful about getting through them. It's easy to see how such a dynamic could foster a sense of trust and an interest in exploring things further with that particular coach.

"It's all about the connection the parent feels with the educator/coach," Zeichner says. "The greater the connection, the greater the likelihood the parent may reach out to the professional for support down the road."

An Effective Adjunct
There's a place for these online parenting resources in social work practice, and an awareness of the different tools available can be extremely useful even if the social worker's treatment specialization isn't exclusively focused on parenting support.

"Social workers could think of the range of online parenting resources as an adjunct to the therapy/support they are already providing," Zeichner says, noting that the resources should be fully vetted by the social worker first. "They could watch key lessons together and/or encourage their clients to pursue the supportive parenting communities as part of the treatment, including the importance of self-care."

Zeichner believes that as long as the resources in question are reputable, they can be beneficial overall. But, she adds, "All this being said, there's nothing like being in a 'live' class with 'real' parents, many of whom are local and like-minded."

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.