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Understanding Stepsiblings vs. Half Siblings

Amy Guertin
Family with half siblings and stepsiblings at the table

Roughly 16% of children in the U.S. are living in blended families that may include a stepsibling or half sibling. The majority of families no longer consist of the traditional, nuclear family, so understanding what stepsiblings and half siblings are helps you understand modern family dynamics.

Types of Sibling Relationships

Twelve percent of American children live in blended families with a stepsibling or half sibling. While these are two types of siblings, you may be wondering "What are the different kinds of sibling relationships?"

Sibling relationships chart

What Are Stepsisters and Stepbrothers?

Stepsiblings have no blood relation but are related through the marriage of one of their parents. For example, Jane is the divorced mother of Alexis and Joe is the divorced father of Brandon. If Jane and Joe get married, Alexis and Brandon would be stepbrother and stepsister.

  • Stepsiblings do not share a biological relationship, so they're not blood related.
  • Because they don't share parents biologically, stepsiblings would not be considered "real siblings" by most people.
  • Stepsibling relationships may be formed by gay marriages or heterosexual marriages.

What Are Half Sisters and Half Brothers?

Half siblings are related by blood through one parent, either the mother or father. For example, in the family above, Jane and Joe are now married and Alexis and Brandon are stepsiblings. Jane and Joe have a baby together, who they name Sarah. Sarah is the half sister to both Alexis and Brandon. Sarah is a half sister to Alexis, since they share the same mother but not the same father. Sarah is also the half sister to Brandon since they share the same father but not the same mother.

  • Half siblings are considered "real siblings" by most because the siblings share some biological relationship through their shared parent.
  • Half siblings can have the same mother and different fathers or the same father and different mothers.
  • Half siblings may share one biological parent, but marital status of any parent does not affect their relation as half siblings.

What Are Full Siblings?

Full siblings have both the same biological mother and biological father. Jane and Joe have a second child together, who they name Todd. Like Sarah, Todd is the half sibling to both Alexis and Brandon. However, Sarah and Todd are full siblings to each other, since they share both the same mother and father.

  • Full siblings are typically who people refer to as "real siblings" because they share both parents.
  • Marital status of any parent does not change the fact that two people are full siblings.
  • Full siblings typically refer to each other as simply "sister" or "brother."

What Are Adopted Siblings?

Adopted siblings don't share any biological parents, but are legally the children of a shared parent. Continuing the same family example, if Jane and Joe adopt a child named Jen together, Jen would be the adopted sibling of Alexis, Brandon, Sarah, and Todd. While they all share at least one parent legally, Jen doesn't share any biological parents with her siblings.

Sibling Relationships in Blended Families

Living in a blended family with a stepparent, stepsibling, or half sibling involves some differences from living in a traditional family. There are some potential challenges to gaining new siblings, but don't fret; there are definite benefits too.

Image of young girl holding her stepsister

Challenges of Stepsibling and Half Sibling Relationships

Potential challenges for kids who are stepsiblings or half siblings living in a blended family can include social, emotional, and physical challenges.

Age Difference Challenges

A large age difference is one potential challenge. Ten or more years between half siblings is not uncommon. This age difference can make it difficult for half siblings to develop the same type of relationship they have with full siblings. Some older half siblings say they feel more like an aunt or uncle than a sibling.

Sibling to Parent Bonding Concerns

It can be difficult on sibling bonding when half siblings live with different parents. This situation most often happens when the half sibling relationship is through the father. Children may have a hard time developing the same closeness that they have with the people they live with.

Sibling to Sibling Bonding Concerns

There is a forced relationship before emotional bonds have been formed. Often, stepsiblings are forced into a relationship with one another before emotional bonds have been fully formed. An older child may have a new, baby half sibling, but may not be emotionally ready for the new addition.

Feelings of Loss

Many half siblings experience feelings of new loss. When parents separate or divorce, children may feel a great loss. When a new half sibling is born, children may re-experience loss as they deal with sharing a parent with another child.

Feelings of Sibling Jealousy

Jealousy can happen if the stepsibling moves in with the child, taking away some of the attention of the parent the child lives with. Feelings of jealousy can be even more profound if the stepsibling lives with the parent that the child is no longer able to live with.

Feelings of Home

Many half and stepchildren feel like no place is home. While many children of separated parents feel like they don't truly have one home, children who have siblings at both parents' homes may feel this more profoundly.

Sibling Order Changes

Loss of "place" in the family can be a challenge for all siblings in the family. The oldest child can suddenly find she's not the oldest anymore and the baby can become a middle child. This loss of "place" in the family can be confusing and cause resentment toward the incoming child.

Benefits of Stepsibling and Half Sibling Relationships

Potential benefits for half siblings and stepsiblings sharing a household can extend far beyond immediate family. Although there seem to be more negatives than positives to a blended family, don't underestimate the weight of the benefits.

Family with young child blowing bubbles at the park

Focus Is on Fun

Many half and stepsiblings note being able to have more of a fun relationship with a sibling is a great benefit to a blended family. This is true especially if there is a large age gap between two children. In that case, the relationship can be based more on fun activities and less on day-to-day tasks.

Less Sibling Competition

Half siblings and stepsiblings tend not to show as much competition for individuality with each other since there isn't a need to differentiate between themselves.

New Role Models

Some blended families are able to develop relationships that benefit everyone. Children have a new female or male role model and people that truly become their siblings. Just like any other family relationships, these relationships are lifelong and a great source of comfort and support.

Improvements in Behavior

Many blended families see improvement in children's behavior. Contrary to popular belief, moving into a blended family does not automatically mean children have more behavior problems than children whose parents never divorced. How a child responds to changes in the family has more to do with the quality of parenting than the transition itself.

More People to Love and to Love You

A blended family means new grandparents! Once children get new stepsiblings, they also get new grandparents who will love them, spoil them, and let them do all of the things their parents won't let them do.

Helping Siblings Adjust and Bond

There are several things you, as a parent, can do to help all the siblings in your family adjust to their new family and bond with one another. Understand, however, you can't do everything and you can't force anything. However, there are things you can do to help.

Encourage Open and Honest Conversations

Talk about everything and don't ignore anything. Let all of your kids talk to you and your spouse about anything that is bothering them. From what they want to call their new stepparent to what they're worried about, these issues are important to your kids even if they seem silly to you.

Ignore Sibling Relationship Titles

Don't force them, but encourage them to not use terms like "step" and "half." The closest, most successful blended families don't differentiate between these relationships. This helps all members to not think of one another differently. If they don't want to call a stepbrother their brother, they can refer to him by name.

Create an Environment of Equality

Treat all of the kids equally. Since your history with your kids is going to be longer than your history with your spouse's kids, treating kids equally might seem challenging. However, love is love, house rules are house rules, and everyone needs to be treated equally.

Discipline Your Own Children

Ease your way into a disciplinarian role. Disciplining stepchildren too soon will cause resentment and interfere with bonding. Let the parent of the child discipline, at first, and then begin to discipline slowly. Start by verbally correcting inappropriate behavior, for example, long before attempting to remove privileges.

Make One-on-One Time a Priority

Make sure you and your spouse spend time with each child in the family individually as well as together. It is important you build a relationship with your stepchildren, but you don't want to neglect your children in the process. Take stepsiblings out together who have common interests or are close in age. Let each child build a relationship with the other children in the family.

Respect Old Traditions and Create New Ones

Make new traditions together, but don't abandon old traditions. Introduce the new side of the family to existing traditions and encourage them to introduce you and your kids to theirs. Try to build new traditions that are unique to your blended family.

Keep Adult Relationships Positive

Do everything possible to develop a relationship with your stepchildren's other parent. By forming a positive relationship with your stepchildren's mom, for example, your stepchildren won't feel the need to have to pick a "favorite mom." Having a good relationship with your stepchildren's other parent will make the family environment more positive overall.

Consider Your Terminology

People are generally familiar with the terms "stepfamilies," "half siblings," "broken families," "blended families," "intact families," "traditional families," and "nontraditional families." However, you should think about what these terms imply, and whether they are really the terms you want to use. If two children love each other, support each other, and grow up with a relationship unlike what most people have, are they merely "stepsiblings?" If two children share the blood of only one parent are they merely "half siblings?" If you remarry, is your family automatically "blended?" When you consider the message you want to send to your children, you may want to get rid of these terms altogether and choose something new for your family.

Understanding Stepsiblings vs. Half Siblings