Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Q&A about Stepsiblings
and Half-siblings

What Adults Need to Know

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/co/qa.htm

Updated  07/04/2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.  

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • The intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement lessons 1 thru 7 

  • Basic perspective on sibling relationships

  • Typical stepfamily kids' developmental and adjustment needs, and...

  • Options for assessing any child's needs

      Typical stepbrothers and stepsisters are "just plain kids" - going to school, playing with friends, learning social skills and hobbies, and relating to family members, neighbors, and pets. And - typical minor and grown stepsiblings, and half-siblings are confronted with alien family roles, relationships, and adjustment tasks that their peers in intact biofamilies don't experience.

      The questions and answers below hilight key things adults need to know about typical stepsibling and half-sibling relationships. Also see Q&A about stepchild and stepparent roles, relationships, and problems

  Questions to discuss about stepsiblings

1)  What do average adults need to know about stepsiblings?

2)  What do typical stepsiblings need most from their family adults?

3)  How can adults help stepsiblings accept and bond with each other?

4)  What can we do if some stepsiblings dislike each other?

5)  What if stepsiblings feel sexual attraction for each other?

6)  What is a half-brother or half sister?

7)  What special needs do typical half-siblings have, and how can co-parents best help with them?

8)  How should co-parents handle different values ("fairness") about child discipline in and between stepsiblings' homes?

9What can we do if one or more stepsibs are psychologically wounded?

  If you don't see your question here, please ask!


Q1)  What do average adults need to know about stepsiblings?

      They need to know that...

their kids each have normal developmental needs and many concurrent stepfamily-adjustment needs which typical adult stepsibs can't describe;

depending on their age, gender, and other factors, minor kids' reactions to first learning they'll have a stepbrother or sister may include delight, confusion (ambivalence), insecurity, curiosity, hostility, jealousy, numbness, and/or indifference;

it's normal for new stepsiblings to test repeatedly to see, who each of their co-parents "likes best," specially if the children are from low-nurturance childhoods. Testing often manifests as...

  • persistent "fighting" or whining,

  • acting unusually possessive of a bioparent's time and attention, and/or...

  • accusing one or more co-parents or siblings of "being unfair."

      With insecure children, verbal reassurances of parental love and status are less impactful than parents' demonstrating those over time; and...

stepsiblings may or may not learn to like, respect, and trust each other over time; and will probably not "love" and bond with each other like healthy biosiblings. There are exceptions, specially stepsibs raised together since early childhood. Stepsiblings may or may not become good friends. If they don't, no one is wrong or bad.

    and co-parents need to know that...

stepsibs - specially step-teens - are more apt to have sexual and/or romantic feelings for each other than biosiblings;

stepsiblings may or may not feel comfortable having different last names;

typical stepsiblings are likely to provoke - and need help coping with - family loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles;

Each child will have unique abilities to bond, and their own grieving styles (public, private, emotional, reserved...), paces (slow to fast), and support-needs; and...

each stepsibling will react differently to

  • visitations with their "other bioparent,"

  • establishing new household and stepfamily rituals; and to...

  • co-parents' discussing or conceiving an "ours" child or stepchild adoption.


Q2)  What do typical stepsiblings need most from their adults?

      They need...

a clear understanding of...

  • their group identity as a stepfamily,

  • who belongs (is included), and...

  • what their step-identity means to them and their other family members;

      and stepsibs need...

the sense that their co-parents aren't anxious or guilty about, or ashamed to be in, a stepfamily; and they need...

genuine reassurance that they don't have to love each other or be friends, like "normal (biological) brothers and sisters"; and that it's wonderful if they do feel those, over time.

      And typical stepsibs need...

affectionate acceptance that they will need to test their stepfamily members to re/gain...

  • personal security ("My parent/s or biosibling/s won't abandon me,"  and "This family won't split up like my others have"), and...

  • clarity about their

    • family roles [like stepson / stepdaughter, stepbrother / sister, step-niece / nephew, stepcousin, half-sister / brother] and...

    • family rank - e.g. who is the smartest / prettiest / most creative / most fun / strongest, / most thoughtful / kindest / most musical (etc.) child in our home and whole family;

And stepsibs need...

empathy (vs. criticism) if they don't like each other, and/or don't want to share their home, bioparent, and belongings (like a pet) with "some other kid/s"; and youngsters need patient help with grieving and accepting those forced losses and changes; and stepkids need...

help (a) understanding, (b) validating, and (c) resolving values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles; and they need adult...

help in identifying, expressing, and reducing excessive guilt over resenting, distrusting, disliking, or feeling indifferent to or jealous of, a stepsister or stepbrother; and they also need ...

help with identifying and respectfully asserting and enforcing personal boundaries with new stepsisters or brothers. Part of such help is seeing how their co-parents set and enforce personal boundaries And typical stepsiblings need...

to feel included (respected) in co-parents' decisions about re/wedding, child conception, choice of dwelling, legal adoption, developing new family rituals, and geographic moves; and...

the other things that individual stepkids need from their co-parents and relatives.

      How many of these typical stepsibling needs could you describe before reading this? How many of these can each of your co-parents and key relatives name? How likely is it that average minor kids can name these needs? Average family-support professionals? Recall this Web site's premise that one of five common stepfamily hazards is unawareness.


Q3)  How can adults best help stepsiblings accept and bond with each other?

      Key options include keeping a patient, long-term outlook, and...

  • everyone make significant progress studying and discussing lessons 1 thru 7  during the mates' courtship;

  • assess each family adult for psychological wounds and commit to reducing them over time;

  • help all adults and kids understand how stepfamily mergers "work," and invite (vs. demand) kids to participate; 

  • studying and discussing stepkids' developmental and adjustment needs, with special emphasis on helping them grieve their losses (lesson 3);

  • adults study and discuss these Q&A articles on stepkids and stepparents;

  • learn realistic stepfamily expectations and teach them to each child;

  • work patiently to admit and reduce any relationship barriers among divorced bioparents and their relatives;

  • help everyone understand values, membership and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and evolve an effective strategy to manage each of these stressors;

  • ensure that all family members do not expect stepsibs to love each other (and step-kin) like biofamily kids do. Shoot for evolving respect and friendship over time, and accept that if those don't develop naturally, no one is "bad.";


  • adults help each other  work steadily at providing effective co-parenting in all related homes (lesson 6)


Q4)  What can we do if stepsiblings dislike each other?

      Consider options like these...

Admit and discuss this "dislike" stressor without blame or guilt, vs. denying, avoiding, pretending, or minimizing it;

Ask each child respectfully what s/he feels and needs, and listen empathically; then...

Seek to learn the real problem - e.g.

  • distrust, disrespect, jealousy, anxiety, and/or insecurities,

  • "bad chemistry" - (incompatible values and interests);

  • incomplete grieving;  

  • loyalty conflicts and/or relationship triangles.

  • unrealistic family role expectations;

  • influence by another co-parent or relative; and/or...

  • ineffective communication.

Decide if this problem warrants using qualified professional help.


Q5)  What if stepsiblings feel sexual attraction for each other?

      This is normal. The odds of sexual attraction and action between average stepsiblings can be higher than in intact biofamilies - specially with stepteens - because the incest taboo is significantly weaker.

      Adults in new stepfamilies can be extra sensitive and reactive to alleged or observed sexual behavior between stepsibs ("Your perverted son spied on my daughter as she was dressing!") Hormones and primal sexual responses ("human nature") transcend traditional biofamily sexual conventions.

      It's better to talk openly about this attraction than to pretend, gossip, blame, or accuse. Be alert for related loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, and amplified stressors between divorced parents, in and between your co-parenting homes


Q6)  What is a half-brother or half sister?

      A half brother or half sister has one only one bioparent in common with their siblings. This can occur when a re/married parent conceives an "ours" child (vs. "his" or "hers") with her new mate. Half of such children's genes are the same as their brothers or sisters, and half are different.

      Unless stepkids have been legally adopted, half-sibling's last names differ from the other child/ren, which can be confusing in school and social situations. So can this: if they live with their bioparents, half-siblings are not stepchildren, though their mom and/or dad may also have the role of stepparent.

      If co-parents or relatives aren't clear on these things, everyone can feel confused or conflictual on their stepfamily's - or the half-sibling's  - identity and family membership ("You're not a real sister, you're only a half sister.") This can promote jealousy, insecurity, hurt, competition, and significant loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles - specially if co-parents (a) disagree on what's true here and/or who's "right;" and/or (b) they don't know how to communicate effectively. 

      For more perspective, see this article.


Q7)  What special needs do typical half-siblings have, and how can co-parents best help with them?

      Typical minor half-sisters and half-brothers have the same developmental needs as any other child. They also may need help from informed co-parents in filling special needs like these:

resolve confusion over what a stepfamily, a stepparent, and a stepsibling is, and how their parents' older child/ren be stepchildren when they aren't - even though their siblings may live in the same home;

learn (a) who belongs to their nuclear and extended families and who doesn't, (b) who decides who belongs, and (c) why their answers to those questions may differ from their siblings';

accept that being a "half" does not mean they are somehow less loved, wanted, worthy, smart, normal, or valuable than "full" siblings, despite some other people implying or saying that it does. It means that they're living with both biological parents, and that they don't have a stepparent.

resolve possible confusion over last names ("How come my last name is Jackson, and my (half)sister's name is Fairchild?")

      And typical "ours children" need informed co-parental help with...

deciding what to call each sibling - e.g. "my brother," "my half-brother," "Jeremy," "My Mom's other son," or something else, and why names are important to some family members and not to others ("I don't care what you call me.") Each stepfamily adult and other child needs to make the same decision; and help with...

learn how to deal with possible jealousy and resentment that they get to live with both bioparents when their half-siblings don't. When this occurs, it's often at least partly caused by the resentful child not having grieved their key losses (broken bonds) from parental divorce, death, and re/marriage. And some half-sibs may need help...

learn how to respond to (or not make) taunts like "You're not my real brother (sister), you're just a half brother (sister) (so you're not as good as me, and you don't rate the same privileges)!"; and also...

learn (a) that their half-siblings' "other parent" is not their biological parent too, and (b) what that difference means  - e.g. learn that it's OK if they don't know or care about their half-sibling's "other Mom" or Dad, and don't "have to" acknowledge them at holidays or birthdays, or expect acknowledgement from them; and...

learn (a) what "child custody," "visitation," "(financial) support", and "parenting agreements" are, (b) why they're a big deal to some other family members, and (c) how to react when sibs and relatives get into "fights" (values and loyalty conflicts, and relationship triangles) over them; and...

learn how keep their boundaries clear and to assert their needs if a co-parent treats or disciplines them differently than a resident or visiting half-brother or sister (e.g. their Mom hugs them, but not their half-sibling); and...

grow compassion for their half-sibling's many alien family-adjustment needs which they don't have and may not understand;

And half-sibs need empathic adult help to...

learn why some (genetic) relatives may treat them "better" than their half-siblings, and how not to feel guilty about that;

clarify what will change (like last names and parental rights and responsibilities) and what will not (genetic inheritances), if one of their co-parents legally adopts one or more half-siblings. And some kids need help with...

learn (a) why their schoolmates and neighbors may not understand or validate these many special needs; and (b) how to react to that; and...

learn (a) why some or all of their other family members are confused about and/or disagree on these issues, and (b) that it's OK to say how this makes them (the child) feel ("I wish you guys would stop fighting all the time!");

      How many of these common "half-sibling" needs were you aware of before you read this? How many of them do you think an average child and adult family member or supporter (friends, teachers, counselors, clergy) could describe? What does such unawareness mean in and between your stepfamily homes? Do your co-parents need to do something about this? If so, (a) what needs to be done, (b) why, and (c) who's responsible for acting?


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