Tips for Bio & Step Parents:  How to Avoid "Milestone Mishaps"

Tips for Bio & Step Parents: How to Avoid "Milestone Mishaps"

I will never forget that moment of shock when upon my daughter's return, her hair had been cut!  And it wasn't just a haircut…it was her FIRST haircut.  Annika had long beautiful curls that everyone adored.   But, her new step-mom — who was a beautician — decided that my 4 year old needed a new look, one without her stunning ringlets.

I couldn't believe it!  I missed my child's first hair cut!  And not only that, but I was actually grieving her sweet curls.  She looked so different now.  How could this have happened? 

Unbelievably, my daughter's step-mom didn't even seem to be aware of how this might impact me.  She was excited about Annika's new look and thought that I'd be thrilled.  But I was experiencing disappointment on two levels:  First, I missed out on a milestone event and second, I wasn't even considered in the decision to cut my own daughter's hair! 

I felt cheated and hurt!  And at that point, I really didn't trust this new woman in my daughter's life.  Over the years, as she continued to cross milestone boundaries, my resentments grew and this negatively impacted our ability to communicate and cooperate.

Milestones Matter

In most cases, step-parents are simply trying to connect with their step-child when they inadvertently cross a milestone boundary — it's not intentional and their heart is usually in the right place. 

But if you truly want to develop a good, cooperative relationship with your child's other home, then you MUST take the time to mindfully consider milestones and be willing to respect this important boundary.

The significance of most milestones is that they only happen once.  For a bio-parent, a "milestone" will typically represent one of three things:   Something they've been looking forward to, something they've been planning or something they care about deeply. 

Here are a few examples:

  • First childhood experiences (attending a parade, movie, live production, sporting event, concert, etc.)

  • Chaperoning a special school outing or event

  • Shopping for a special occasion (child's first dance, the prom, a special performance, holidays)

  • Rites of Passage activities (teaching a child to ride a bike, shave, drive a car or shopping for first bra)

  • Altering a child's appearance (a haircut/color, makeup, piercing, unusual clothing)

  • Engaging in sensitive conversations (around puberty, dating, sexuality, spirituality)

Even if the bio-parent in your home (your partner) gives you the go-ahead, that doesn't necessarily give you carte blanche to commandeer a milestone.  Again, a little mindfulness goes a long way…and will pay off in the long run!

Strategies for Step-parents

To avoid unnecessary conflict and work toward building trust and cooperation with the other home, here are some tips that will help:

1. Ask yourself some crucial questions: 

"If the roles were reversed and this was MY biological child, would I really be okay with a step-parent taking over this role and sharing this milestone with my child?  How would I feel if I missed out on this milestone?  Would I be hurt if my feelings or opinions were overlooked or disregarded?  How would this impact my relationship with the step-parent?"

If you're able to put yourself into the bio-parent's shoes, you'll gain a deeper understanding of how your actions might create a problem which could lead to distrust, resentment and tension between the two of you.

2. Check your motives.  

If the questions above made you a little uncomfortable, you may need to do a gut-check.  If your motive is to do what's best for the child AND respectfully consider the bio-parent, that's great!  But if your motive is a bit shady…(you know what I mean)…then choose to stop, think it through and seek some sound advice.  One-upping a bio-parent or attempting to claim their role will surely backfire and create conflict for everyone.

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3. Ask Before You Act. 

Depending on the situation and all the relationships, you and your partner need to consider the best approach.  It could be you or your partner that communicates with the bio-parent and asks for their input.  Be respectful and have an attitude of curiosity.  What are they comfortable with and where are the boundaries?  Maybe they're okay that you'd like to take the child to their first professional baseball game, but they'd like to be the one taking him to his first concert. 

Even if it's something minor, but you just aren't sure — asking first for some clarity is a great way to cultivate trust and ease concerns for both you and the bio-parent. 

Several years ago, while Annika was at our house, she wanted to experience her first haunted house for Halloween.  Mike really wanted to take her (he loves that stuff), but he realized this could cross a milestone boundary with her dad.  Mike called to talk it over with her dad and they ended up taking Annika together.  What an amazing memory for her to experience her first haunted house with both of them!

4. Own Your Oversights. 

If you unintentionally cross a milestone boundary, take responsibility and offer a genuine apology.  You might be surprised if something you thought was insignificant,  turns out to be a problem for the bio-parent. 

That's normal!  Try not to take it personally or react with defensiveness.  Instead, do your best to give them some grace and understanding - it's hard to be separated from your child and have to share them with a step-parent.  Choose to take ownership of your actions and simply move on.  

Strategies for Bio-Parents 

A cooperative relationship requires both parties to take responsibility for themselves and strive for understanding and unity.  If you’re a bio-parent, it's in your best interest (and your child's) to establish a cooperative relationship with everyone in the other home.

Here are some helpful tips when you feel that your milestone boundaries are being threatened:

1. Be Upfront and Honest. 

It's okay to calmly share with a step-parent those things that you're looking forward to, planning for and care deeply about.  You really can't assume that a step-parent will be able to respect your milestone boundaries if they're unclear about where the boundary is. 

If you've been looking forward to dress shopping with your daughter for her first big dance and you realize it's coming up soon, contact the other home and let them know that you're planning to take your daughter shopping for the big event.  Tell them why it's important to you and thank them for respecting the boundary.

2. Be Inclusive. 

Whenever possible, include the step-parent and help them to feel needed and appreciated.  Step-parenting is a really tough job, so be kind and encourage their efforts — they likely want good things for your child too!  Maybe you'll be the one taking your daughter to pick out the dress, but then include the step-parent by asking if they'll take her shopping for shoes or jewelry.  Be willing to open your heart and accept all the positive support that a step-parent has to offer.  And don't forget to thank them for their contributions!

3. Be Gracious and Forgiving. 

Expect that a step-parent WILL mistakenly cross milestone boundaries. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect step-parent!  But rather than jumping to negative conclusions about their motives, give them the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand. Calmly let them know they've crossed a boundary and tell them why this milestone was important to you. Be sure to use good communication skills and don't play the blame game. 

Once you've respectfully communicated directly with the step-parent, then move toward forgiveness.  This isn't easy (believe me…I know), but holding onto anger and resentment is really unproductive and toxic for everyone.  Take time to grieve your lost milestone and do what you can to reclaim it (I have a picture on our fridge of my daughter at 4 years old — with her lovely locks — and it makes me smile).  Be willing to let it go and accept that things won't always work out the way we expect them to.

Almost everything about stepfamily life points to dynamics that are delicate, tricky and awkward.  Milestone mishaps often happen between the two bio-parents as well.  Sometimes we just aren't sure how to respond or what to think.  It can get complicated and confusing very quickly!  But don't lose hope!  You can work together (even when it's messy) to build cooperative relationships and a supportive environment that's respectful to all!

QUESTION:  What's one milestone you see coming up in your child / step-child's life that you need to prepare for?  Leave a comment below…

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