Parenting forums have helped to breakdown the isolation of rearing children. But it’s important to remember your own core values, experts tell Helen O’Callaghan
When Feelgood started out 20 years ago, there were no parenting forums, no mummy blogs.
The internet was still new.
In those almost pre-tech days, mums and dads – challenged by all things parenting – depended for advice on what was on the shelves of their nearest bookshop, on chats with their own parents, on heart-to-hearts with friends over coffee or on parent-toddler group discussions.
Today, with the click of a mouse or a few upward swipes, an abundance of online advice is available 24/7, whether you’re wondering when to explain menstruation to your daughter, what to do about head-lice or how best to deal with tantrums, school refusal or the politics of nine-year-old friendships.
No matter what the issue, there’s a whole array of recommendations out there about what works and what doesn’t.
So, is this good? Yes, says psychotherapist and author Joanna Fortune, who sees pro-social benefits to feeling part of a system bigger than ourselves.
She says online parenting platforms provide access to a network of others, struggling like us and finding solutions together. “This can break the loneliness of parenthood and provide reassurance when we feel we’re getting it wrong all the time.
"Permission to express how we’re feeling depends upon knowing there’s someone there to listen – for many people their social media peer-group enables this expression.”
Dr Colman Noctor, psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, agrees that, as parents, we feel “we’re failing less when we see others are struggling too”, and that you can often pick up practical things on online forums that you mightn’t otherwise have thought of.
“There has to be good in the mutual sharing of information, for example, in the case of first-time parents hearing the experience of someone with four children already.”
But we need to come to the online glut of parenting advice/info with some firm truths in mind. Number one: moderation is key.
“Too much opinion, too many conflicting bits of advice, always a new way for the sake of the new, will drive expectations of what it is to be a parent into a tailspin.
"And how do parents prioritise one piece of advice over another, when a lot of the advice carries equal weight?” asks Noctor.
He debunks what he calls the greatest myth – that there’s only one way to parent. “We parent differently based on what the child presents with – a meek, hypersensitive child will need a different strategy to a more robust one. We all have to try something [to find what works] and practice-based evidence is as good as evidence-based practice.”
Online recommendations, like any others, need to be a good fit for our circumstances, says Noctor, who highlights the importance of parental core values.
“A value system’s one of the most important things we hand down to children – a value system that’s well-intended and doesn’t sweat the small stuff.”
He urges never dismissing our own values in order to follow routine recommendations. For example, parents who believe discipline’s important will be less likely to let inappropriate behaviours go.
So if what we want for our home/family is ‘no swearing in this house’, but instead – against our instincts – we follow an online piece of advice to not discipline our child’s swearing but let them act it out, we’re not being true to our core values.
“So maybe that [online] recommendation isn’t the one for you to go with. Remember, as a parent you’re in charge of your own home culture,” says Noctor.
Fortune warns that many parenting platforms/forums are not expert-led, and so ‘advice’ can be conflicting, contradictory and even wildly inaccurate.
“Parenting isn't universal because our parenting experience is rooted in our relationship with our own children, and children aren’t ‘standard’, so what works for one online blogger may not work for your child or your parent-child relationship.”
She points out that large parenting platforms are commercial entities and are revenue-driven and as such they need a constant stream of content that comes from all kinds of sources.
“It can be overwhelming to be faced with this onslaught of ‘advice’ when you’re online – you may come away with more worries than you came on with,” she says, adding that the virtual community can’t and shouldn’t replace real-life connections and relationships.
And our parenting style evolves, not just in relation to our children – but also in relation to how we were parented ourselves. “Becoming the parent of a child bears the echoes of having been the child of a parent,” says Fortune, who – in her book, 15 Minute Parenting – suggests doing a parental self-audit to reflect inwards how we’re parenting outwards.
In a self-audit, she encourages asking a range of questions including ‘Did you feel loved as a child? By whom?’ ‘How were your successes celebrated in your family?’ ‘What would happen when you were sick?’ ‘Who played with you as a child?’
But no matter what parenting advice we take on board – whether from online sources or otherwise – our buy-in has to be realistic, says Noctor, who points out that many parenting solutions are labour-intensive because breaking patterns of behaviour can take time.
“Anything selling a quick solution is possibly not a solution. Even though advice is available and concisely-given, the behaviour change takes time and labour.”
Stress-free strategies for nurturing your child's development
Promote understanding rather than telling parents how to do it.
Psychotherapist Colman Noctor says his knowledge relating to parenting comes from 24 years of working with children – rather than parents.
His approach is to get parents to see their child’s behaviour from the child’s point of view. “Every behaviour has meaning, so the key is to find out what that meaning is. What is it communicating? And then either answer that or meet it. It’s about creating meaning and then giving a choice about how to manage that meaning.”
So, instead of telling parents to ‘do this’, he says ‘this behaviour could mean…’ “I’m trying to promote understanding rather than giving directions.”
- The second in Joanna Fortune’s 15-Minute Parenting series is published by Thread Books UK and available at £9.99: 15-Minute Parenting, 8-12 Years