The difference between step and half siblings

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stepchild, stepbrothers, stepsisters, step siblings
A scene from the film stepbrothers. Or are they half brothers? Would you know the difference?

I am a stepchild. This is no secret, I have written about the subject before.

As a stepchild (stepson) I am often surprised at how often the term is misused, especially when referring to siblings and half siblings. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I don’t lie awake at night on a pillow saturated by my salty tears, unable to sleep because of the turmoil I feel having again been called a “stepbrother.” I am, nonetheless, bemused at how frequently I am erroneously referred to as a step-sibling to my brothers.

The difference between a step-sibling and a half-sibling is incredibly simple. Even so, supposedly reliable sources such as national news media confuse the two phrases with surprising regularity.

A step-sibling is related to you purely on the basis that one of your parents has married someone else who already has children. The children of the two earlier relationships are step-siblings and there is no biological link whatsoever.

A half-sibling, meanwhile, shares a parent with you. Believe it or not, I have heard it said you must share the same father to qualify as a half-sibling. This, however, is rather like claiming the Earth is flat. It is wrong; you can share a mother or father and qualify as a half-sibling.

What concerns me are the surprising places step and half sibling confusion can occur. I have a French language audiobook on my phone that I play to the kids on long car journeys. It features a song in both English and French that goes through various family relationships.

It correctly describes a stepfather but erroneously translates half-brother as stepbrother and I wince every time I hear it. It makes me feel deeply uncomfortable that such a simple mistake made it into educational materials (although on the plus side, the producers at least tackled the issue of step and half siblings).

I don’t get offended when I hear the phrases swapped and misused. I am, nonetheless, unhappy about it.

Referring to someone as a step-sibling suggests the family ties aren’t quite as strong as they perhaps are. It’s also inaccurate and the definition so simple I don’t understand how people get it wrong.

The other question is whether anyone actually uses the term-half brother or half-sister? In general, day-to-day discussion I don’t. To be honest, I don’t know anyone who does. I occasionally have to explain why I have a different surname to my brothers and this necessitates explaining the intricacies of my background, but that’s generally the only time it comes up.

Are you a step-sibling or half-sibling? Does confusion between the terms irritate you? Are you surprised that I this day and age there isn’t greater understanding of the two relationships? Leave a comment below, I’d be interested to know.

18 thoughts on “The difference between step and half siblings”

    1. Ah, yeah, sister in law / brother in law. I have heard that one too. That’s just completely wrong. There’s no in-law about it at all!

  1. Catie: An imperfect mum

    Such an interesting post and something we need to think about more as our notion of families is changing and adapting to suit modern life. I liked when you said in general day to day discussion you don’t use ‘half’ brother, if you’re ties are strong why would you. I suppose it depends on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty person but half anything just doesn’t sound right to me. #effitfriday

    1. It is a notion that needs to be discussed and debated, nit swept under the carpet. Families have changed shape but step relations are, I always think, portrayed as mysterious, ghostly figures. Nobody quite wants to acknowledge them. Maybe Cinderella and Disney are to blame!

    1. It’s a very personal thing. I wrote a while back about how I think it is important the phrase step and blended families are kept in general use. A lot of step parents seem to take a rose-tinted view and want their step children to refer to them as mum and dad instead of step mum and step dad. As a step kid, it isn’t that easy. Sometimes you need or want to draw the distinction. It’s not black and white but shades of grey.

  2. It’s so weird that the terminology still gets so mixed up! I can’t really think of any instances where I’ve used half siblings in day to day convo, though sometimes I have heard people clarify that so-and-so is a step-sibling. I’ll probably be listening out for it now though! #effitfriday

    1. I guess I’m a bit sensitive to it being a step child, but it’s such a basic thing. There are, after all, many of us step siblings around so you’d imagine we’d all of learned the terminology by now.

  3. I am a step mum to hubbies 2 children and he is a step dad to my 3 children, my kids refer to hubby as step dad and have always called him by his first name, his kids refer to me as mum and call me mum the reason being my kids saw their father, whereas hubbies kids had little or no contact with their mother.
    When it comes to the kids they tell everyone they have 3 brothers and a sister, they don’t bother with explanations of different surnames, unless like today, for medical reasons, my youngest explained he had a step brother, step sister, a full brother and a half brother

  4. Myself I have half siblings, from my Dad’s previous marriage. Was odd explaining to school friends as they my 2 half sisters and 2 half brothers were alot older than me, Adults married with children of their own. Explaining to friends how when I was 12 my sisters 16yr old son was my nephew! Confusing.

    I’m also a step father to 2 amazing girls, between me and the Mrs this means we have 5 daughters, our kids are always portrayed as our 5 daughters, saves the explaining of 3 daughters and 2 step daughters. But often when I’m out and about adventuring with them we get comments of aww doesn’t she look like her daddy and all these beautiful sisters together. Usually tend to agree and converse as they are rather than explaining they are actually in fact step sisters with a different father.

  5. I have 3 kids from 2 fathers, my husband has 2 kids from 1 mother, we don’t have any children between us. My step son only has one mum which is me. My 3 have The Parents, which is my husband and I, youngest calls me by my 1st name, all call my husband by his 1st name. Yet if you ask the kids how many brothers and sisters they have they all say 3 brothers, 1 sister. They don’t consider themselves a step family, just family. It’s actually only mine and my husbands families that refer to the kids as either biologically related or belonging to the other person.

    1. You can see from 5 years ago how my children have changed their attitude towards us as parents but not towards one another. Maybe it’s because they’re all adults now and one of them made us grandparents.

  6. I’m so excited; I’m gonna be a step dad to my girlfriend/soon to be wife’s kids but I haven’t met the boys yet.,two of them, both are toddlers.. I’m gonna be a ‘Dad soon!!

  7. So.if my father had a son from his first marriage and his wife dies and then he married my mother what does that make the son to me…half brother?
    I’m confused by your post bcos step or half one parent is always common

  8. With a lot of research, I can’t come to a definitive answer to my question. You are knowledgeable, so hopefully you will know. My husband has 2 biological children , and I have 2 biological children. So our children are step siblings. My husband recently adopted my 2 children, so he is now legally their father. Does this make my biological children and his biological children now half siblings, or are they still step siblings? Thank you!

  9. My mother tongue is Nepali. Nepali language also has the term like step sibling but that is not used while calling or addressing. But that is there. Here in English, the relation step sibling is very clear. What is half sibling? It is not clear. I’ve have read the explanations and 14 or 15 comments above, but I’m still in confusion about the ‘half sibling’ relation.

    1. Very interesting to read the difference in the Nepali language. A half sibling is someone who you share either a mother or mother father. For instance, a husband and wife may marry and have a child. They may then get divorced (or one of the them dies) and they remarry and have more children with a second husband / wife. The children from the two marriages would be half siblings.

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