Around the country today, many adoption organizations are using private Facebook groups as a flexible, accessible way to enable adoptive parents to support one another. These groups allow parents to come together to share the joys and challenges of parenting children who have experienced loss and trauma.
NACAC started its Minnesota Facebook support group in 2009 as part of our statewide Adoption Support Network. Today, we serve more than 1,000 Minnesota adoptive parents through several different groups. In 2014, parents posted more than 45,000 messages, through which they shared information, asked and answered questions, discussed behaviors and proposed solutions, requested and received emotional support, and more. These families have developed a community they rely on daily for encouragement and support. As one participant explained, “This community means the world to me.”
Another wrote, “The ASN page is there any time of day or night. I love it. And so many times it has made me feel like we can get through hard times because I know other families are doing it, too.”
Below, we explore how to create safe, private, supportive networks using Facebook. Given Facebook’s tremendous popularity, we found that it’s one of the easiest ways to implement online support. Its popularity does have some specific concerns, which we address as well.
The Value of Online Support
In recent years, families have gotten busier and many struggle to attend in-person support groups. At the same time, huge numbers of individuals are using social media—Facebook, in particular—for information sharing and community building. Taken together, these trends result in a wonderful opportunity to provide adoptive parents with needed support. Using a tool most are aware of and comfortable with, parents are able to get support when they need it and not just once a week or month at an in-person group meeting.
How to Start a Group
As you start an online group, you’ll need to think about the following:
- Your specific theme or purpose
- Who will monitor posts and how to address issues and concerns
- What ground rules to set to help participants
- How to reach families
Deciding on the Type of Group
Some organizations have open Facebook groups, which they use to post announcements about trainings and events, resources, and announcements. These have great value, but are quite different than a true online support group. An online support group should be a closed Facebook group, with participants approved by a moderator. With a closed group, participants’ posts are visible only to approved group members and don’t appear on participants’ walls or home pages.
But beyond open and closed, your organization has other choices to make about the group. Do you want one group for all adoptive families? Do you want a couple of groups based on issues families may be facing or for different populations? Do you want a group with a particular purpose?
Specialized types of groups include:
- Regional groups
- Groups for specific populations such as parents of teens, transracial families, LGBT families, type of adoption (foster care, international, private domestic), single parents, parents waiting for a placement
- Groups on special topics like educational needs, advocacy, particular disabilities or challenges
- Book clubs in which parents read the same adoption-related book every month and then discuss the book and how it relates to their lives
Before you launch a group, you will want to spend some time thinking about the adoptive and foster parents you work with and identify the group’s needs and culture, ways group members successfully communicate, and what group members have in common. As you launch the group, you’ll want to make your format and posts best fit the culture and needs of your community. For example, if your community members are more reluctant to share personal information with one another, you may want to create a group with more structure. You might have a book or article discussion group or post specific topics weekly for group input. If, however, you have a core group of parents who already know one another through an in-person support group or other adoption activities, you may be able to have a very open-ended group from the beginning. Even in communities where people don’t share their own details, these online groups can help people make connections and learn from one another.
One of the most challenging aspects of running an active Facebook support group is ensuring that the page is successfully moderated. This can take more time than you might think. We recommend that you identify a team of experienced adoptive parents (whether on staff or volunteers) who will serve as moderators. Moderators need to know helpful resources, core adoption issues, special needs, the effect of adoption and foster care on the family, parenting strategies, and more. They also need to address problem behaviors or violations of the ground rules. Moderators should be responsive, respectful, supportive, encouraging, understanding, nonjudgmental, and positive.
Whenever possible, moderators should divide the workload—for example, one might moderate on Monday, another on Tuesday, and so on through the week. Moderators don’t need to read every post, but they should review the page multiple times a day. Over time, as more experienced parents join the group, you may find others to add to your moderating team.
If moderators already have a personal Facebook page, they may want to create a new Facebook page for this group so they can keep their personal information private. Having a separate page helps them maintain a boundary between personal Facebook time and the support group’s professional or volunteer Facebook time. If moderators don’t create a new profile, they certainly should check their privacy settings carefully to be sure group members can access only what they’d like to share.
Establishing Ground Rules
In the planning stages, it is very important to set ground rules that you will share with all prospective members of the group. You’ll also want to share them periodically with the entire group as a reminder. We recommend the following, but your group may have more or different guidelines:
- Respect all members of the group—never insult another group member; it’s fine to disagree but politely and respectfully
- Maintain strict confidentiality—what is posted in the group is never shared with others
- Never use your children’s names and don’t disclose anything that could be hurtful or embarrassing for the child
- Respect workers, therapists, and others—do not use the group to insult or disparage others
- Although the following are not part of NACAC’s formal guidelines, they are general rules of behavior our moderators would enforce:
- Never use profanity
- Avoid politics
- Don’t promote or disparage any religion or belief system (or lack thereof)
Most online groups will start small, and it will take effort to find families to participate. Having an outreach plan in place from the beginning is a wise idea, but outreach will need to continue regularly. We recommend:
- Notifying leaders of existing in-person support groups
- Asking adoptive parents to share information with others they know
- Sharing flyers and other information with county, state, tribal, or other adoption agencies and adoption support organizations, asking them to distribute the information to their families
- Sharing information with therapists and others who serve families
- Posting information on your website, with a link to join
Some of the best outreach comes from other adoptive parents who are part of the group. We encourage group members to tell other parents about how and why they value the online support.
Maintaining the Group
The key to running a successful group is the experience and commitment of the moderators. Moderators have to help develop a climate of trust and togetherness, while showing empathy and compassion for what other families are going though. Moderators can build trust by welcoming new members, being responsive to questions or concerns, reminding members that individuals can have differences of opinion and express them respectfully, and validating people’s feelings. Once moderators have created a safe, respectful, and encouraging group, members will typically follow their lead.
Specifically, moderators are responsible for:
- Approving or denying requests to join the group; possibly removing individuals from the group — When we get a request to join our Facebook group, a moderator sends a message to that person asking about their role in adoption and explaining the ground rules. We only approve adoptive parents to join the group. If a group member becomes offensive or can’t follow the ground rules, the moderator would need to dismiss the person from the group as well.
- Reviewing posts, particularly to ensure the ground rules are being followed — Although moderators don’t review every entry, they do look at postings several times a day. They scan for themes, active discussions, and disagreements that could become a problem.
- Removing offensive, inappropriate posts or posts that violate the ground rules — Since starting our Adoption Support Network groups in 2009, we’ve only had to remove a few posts, but it’s an important role for a moderator. Moderators will need to delete posts that offer bad or dangerous advice, insult workers or other parents, or violate ground rules such as those using children’s names or pictures. In these cases, we recommend moderators remove the post, then send a private message to the participant letting her know why the post was removed and reminding her of ground rules.
- Offering suggestions and parenting tips — Moderators respond to questions and make new posts sharing their expertise and experiences.
- Identifying resources, trainings, events related to adoption or disabilities and challenges common in adoption — Especially in the beginning when the group may be less active, moderators post useful trainings, books, articles, and other resources that may be of use to parents. They also share ongoing news and events that might be of value to participants.
- Generating discussion — Again, especially early on, moderators have a great role in starting and maintaining discussions. They can post questions such as: What are the three best books you’ve read about adoption? What three things do you wish you had known when you first became an adoptive parent? What’s the best thing about being an adoptive parent? Posts such as these help the more experienced parents in the group get comfortable sharing their expertise as well.
- Encouraging group members and offering hope — Sometimes, participants just need a reminder that they are not alone or that things can get better. Experienced adoptive parent moderators can share their own success stories and encourage others to hang in there. They can also inform participants of the serious, ongoing effects of trauma and how trauma manifests itself in many children. Moderators remind parents to remain optimistic.
- Lightening the mood — Sometimes, the group can begin to feel negative or depressing, and the moderator can take the opportunity to change the mood. A moderator might ask attendees to name their family’s theme song, share the music that gets them through the day, or provide them with their favorite strength-based quotation. For the Adoption Support Network groups, we have created High Five Fridays, during which moderators encourage parents to post positive stories and family successes.
Although we encourage moderators to try to keep things positive, we don’t suggest groups avoid talking about serious challenges—some parents have nowhere else to turn and those struggling really need the help. If a conversation on NACAC’s Facebook group is not appropriate for a larger group discussion or might breach confidentiality, staff offer one-on-one support through Facebook private messaging or by phone.
Moderating an adoptive parent support group online can take considerable time, and it is best to have a team of experienced parents sharing the responsibility. Since Facebook is a part of many people’s daily lives, moderators need to learn to set their own boundaries. It can be easy to look at Facebook while on vacation or during every weekend, and this can result in burnout for moderators. We strongly suggest that the organization hosting the page have a process in place to ensure moderators share the workload and have plenty of time away from the group when they need it.
Moderators can also spread the word among the group about the importance of self-care. They can ask participants to share their best tips for taking care of themselves and celebrate those individuals who share their best ways of relaxing and rejuvenating. NACAC’s group has a Self-Care Sunday once or twice a month, where moderators remind parents to take care of themselves.
Private Facebook support groups are a great way to enable adoptive parents to support one another and to build a sense of community. Careful planning and moderation can ensure a successful group through which members find support whenever they need it.