Do Your Children Refuse to Use “Half” and “Step”?

My stepdaughter has the whole shebang – a stepsister, a half brother, a stepmother and a stepfather. Two parents who love her to pieces. Two sets of grandparents. Two sets of stepgrandparents. Countless aunts and uncles of varying levels of formality.

She’s the lynchpin between two families. We all have different surnames, we live across three households… it’s a real patchwork quilt.

I love the way that all these people are connected through this one little girl. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely not easy, but in the calmer moments I can look at it with clarity and say “wow, well there’s something…”. Sometimes I’m even glad that we have to work at it, because anything that’s worth it is needs to be worked at.

My stepdaughter has never used “half” and “step” to describe her siblings

She’s young, and in that respect has the benefit of not really knowing any other family dynamic. Family trees are taught at nursery, however, and the terms “half” and “step” have entered her vocabulary at various points. Why, then, has she never used them?

We’re lucky that both households have a very similar approach to this without ever having discussed it. Her brother was born recently, just before lockdown, and she wasn’t able to see him for the first three months of his life. It was up to her mother to instil in her the freedom to call him what she wanted to, and it transpires that using the word “half” never entered her mind.

The same with her stepsister. A few weeks after my stepdaughter had moved in with her stepfather, we were talking about her new family. There wasn’t any question about who her stepfather’s daughter was; they lived together, they played together, they slept under the same roof – she was her sister. End of.

Note that I’m only talking about siblings in this article – what a child chooses to call their stepparents seems to be more nuanced, personal and, possibly, culturally significant. One for another day!

It’s so fundamentally important for her to feel part of the family fabric

Not using terminology to remove-by-one the relationship she has with her siblings assists with just that. We all love her and want her to feel part of every nook of the family; to feel wanted wherever she is. If it’s natural to her to drop the half and step, then we’re overjoyed.

What I want for my stepdaughter was put so beautifully by someone writing anonymously for

“I want my siblings to trust that I love them anytime they hear me speak. Calling them my “half-siblings” feels a little too much like saying, “We’re only half-family – I can’t forget this, and I can’t let you forget this.”

But this is not the norm for stepsiblings

Constance Ahrons, PhD, considered what grown children had to say about their parents’ divorce in her book We’re Still Family. She quotes the findings of her Binuclear Family Study, which assessed family dynamics following divorce over a period of twenty years.

The study found that less than one third of the children thought of their step-siblings as brothers and sisters. The factors that impacted on this included:

  • whether they had lived with them (either partial weeks or for extended periods of time);
  • the age-gap between the children; and
  • the age of the children at the stage of their parents re-partnering.

The result these factors had on individuals, however, was wildly different between particular situations, and Constance emphasises that the responses are varied and impossible to fully categorise. Where children were close in age you might assume that they would be better friends, but sometimes this resulted in hard fought rivalries. Older children might be expected to understand and cope with the idea of a stepsibling or half sibling more comprehensively, but that doesn’t take into account the complex emotions arising from their parents’ divorce, or simply personality clashes.

Basically, if the stepsiblings in your family just aren’t “blending” no matter how high you turn up the power, don’t sweat it. You are in very good company, and it’s likely that the “blended” ideal is just that anyway – an ideal, and not a realistic expectation.

It’s a different story for half siblings

In contrast, almost all of the children in the study thought of their half siblings as brothers and sisters. That’s not to say that they were initially overjoyed at the prospect of their sibling’s entry into the world, but that in time they came to see their sibling as something good which came out of their parents’ divorce. If this is something that you’re struggling with right now, chances are that negative emotions will dissipate in time and the bond you hope for will form.

Ultimately it’s an intensely emotive subject

… with it being entirely possible that the participants in the study themselves don’t fully understand their reasons for using the terminology that they do. It all boils down to a ‘feeling’.

To steal a phrase from the fitness industry, “you can’t apply a cookie-cutter approach”.

“Half” and “step” work for some, but it’s each family’s prerogative to find the titles that suit them

You just cannot avoid external judgement, or accidental assumptions as a stepfamily; it happens all the time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been mistaken as the mother rather than the stepmother.

There have been occasions that I’ve heard someone talk about their sister or brother, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the other person exclaims “oh you’re just half brothers” or “ah I see, she’s just your stepsister!”, as if this clarifies an otherwise very confusing family structure for them.

If such an utterance is from someone who hasn’t had many dealings with co-parenting then we might be able to forgive them, but sometimes these sorts of comments are weaponised in order to undermine the legitimacy of that particular family structure.

The best thing anyone can do when discussing someone’s family dynamics is to take the cue from the person themselves. If someone if talking about their half brother, it may be important for them to maintain that distance; maybe they’ve never got on, or there’s been hurt in the past. Likewise, if someone refers to their sister rather than their stepsister, it’s a pretty clear indication that they want you to appreciate their closeness.

Of course, in some cases there could be less emotional reasons behind the terminology; it’s just how their families have always been explained to them perhaps, and they’ve never questioned this. That’s absolutely fine too, provided such explanations were intended to do just that – explain, rather than to cause separation and alienation.

Ultimately it’s the siblings’ relationship, and they should have the freedom to define it as they wish. That’s why if, in the future, my stepdaughter decides to refer to her siblings as “half” and “step” after all, I admit that I’ll feel very sad about the change of heart, but I won’t argue with her.

And you can feel free to quote me on this…

Hit the share buttons if any of this rings true for you, and drop me a message – I’d love to hear from you.