How can we transition step-children and half-siblings into a unified family?

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Photo by Olaf, used under Creative Commons license.
I married a wonderful fella and his two daughters last June. We both feel like the four of us are doing fairly well with the transitions, and now it looks like we’re adding to our family in October. The girls knew we hoped to, which meant that they were not surprised when we told them. They weren’t enthusiastic, either. I’m not expecting them to be, at least not yet, but I am curious about how best to proceed.

The girls live with us exactly half of their time (7:14 days). My goal is to be proactive about this while I have the time. I’ve found some literature on half-siblings (I have one myself, but we never lived together), but it seems to focus on younger siblings or adult siblings. While some of it is useful, the ages of our girls (will be 14 and 11 when baby arrives) mean that a large part of it isn’t relevant to them.

Does anyone have any advice, experience, books, or blogs related to tween and teen half siblings? In my perfect world, our baby would bring us all closer together as a family rather than emphasize the “step” & “half” aspects of our kinship. — Jamie

Editorial note: please refrain from including personal details about children and/or ex partners in your responses. Thanks!

Comments on How can we transition step-children and half-siblings into a unified family?

  1. I was much younger at the age of four when my half sister was born. I have always viewed her as my sister and my step father adopted me, but I could always feel the divide. He always loved her more and made it evident that he did not trust me in the same way. He believed she could do no wrong and always believed that anything contradicting that which I told him was sour grapes. It wasn’t until I moved out that he realized I was telling the truth and he called an gave a blanket apology. If I had been treated fairly and loved unconditionally like I should have been I probably wouldn’t have moved 1,800 miles away. Anyway, my advice is to just keep loving your girls. Babies are a wonderful gift but a serious energy sapper. Being honest about what you feel is also something that your girls will appreciate. Treating them like they are mature and conversing about these things will help. Ultimately just keep loving them.

  2. I was 10 when i got my first half sibling and 11 when i got my step mom. Honestly, integration just happens. It takes time, and i was jealous for a awhile, but I grew out of it. My dad and step mom went on to have another brother,. It was awesome. I wasn’t jealous, but it did take time to adjust to the first brother. My mom got remarried and i had three half sisters.

    I just call them brothers and sisters, because that’s what they are, and the term half sibling is kind of offensive to me, unless I’m explaining the blood nature of our relationship.

    Integration will happen, it’s not something you can help (aside from generally trying to foster a sense of true family), and it’s not going to be easy. But it will happen. Thirteen years after I started on this journey of a mixed family, I can honestly say I love all four of my parents and all five of my brothers and sisters.

  3. My mother married my step-father when I was 8, and my oldest brother came along when I was almost 9. I didn’t have much of a reaction, either, when I was told I had a brother or sister coming along – I was pretty much like, eh, whatev. Once my brother came along, things were cool, and the two that followed were cool as well, but I have to say the integration part was not always easy. I have never viewed my brothers as “half” anything, but the way they were treated in comparison to how I was treated was definitely different, partly because of economics, partly because their father was around, so there was a huge extended family there immediately, something I didn’t have. It made things complicated in a lot of ways, and my tendency to be quiet and withdrawn in a family of performers and extroverts didn’t help.

    My brothers and I, and my dad (their bio-father), and the extended family get along great now, but it took some time, distance, and a LOT of growing up. And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

    I think the key is, set certain ground rules, but don’t force them to “get along”. My mom and dad would not allow us to fight each other (disagreements were fine), we had dinner together as often as possible, and the words “half” and “step” were never used. However, if we didn’t want to play together we didn’t have to, and we could have time alone anytime. I think those things helped a LOT.

  4. Acknowledge the ick factor for the 14 year old. I had a sib added to our family when I was 15 and it was a combination of three things for me: a) barf in my mouth because my parents were still getting it on b) we’re (sister and I) not good enough, so they had to have another kid and c) what if they expect me to be an extra set of hands when I don’t want to be? I moved out very early because it was not handled well and they don’t discipline little bro AT ALL. Please don’t be like my parents.

    • I agree with this entirely. I was almost 12 when my youngest sibling came along, and whilst not a “half” sibling, I also went through these 3 thought processes at the time. 20 years later and I still have issues with the way my mother in particular handled it.

  5. Abolish the words Step and Half from your vocab. Only use them when explaining blood/lineage.

    I have two half brothers, two step-sisters, and one “full” sister. As far as I am concerned, I have three sisters and two brothers. Period. I dare you to pick out which ones are only “half” or “step” in family photos.

    • I agree totally with this. My dad had three boys in a previous marriage when he met my mom and had me, and then my sister. To me, and to them we are all just siblings. I’m their sister, they are my brothers. No “step” or “half” anything. We just love each other.

      My husband’s family, on the other hand, uses the words “step” and “half” sibling quite often, and I do think their is a divide of some kind because of it.

    • I have half- and step-cousins, but none of us use those terms. We’re all cousins, and I’ve only ever heard them refer to each other as brother/sister. The only person that made a deal out of it was my mother, and that’s because she likes to label everyone.

      *shrugs* I prefer the relaxed approach, we’re a family and we love each other. Blood relations have nothing to do with that.

    • THIS! Abolish the words “step” and “half”. Our older kids were 18, 15, and 14 when my husband and I had our first baby together. We NEVER called the older kids “steps” and we NEVER call the baby their “half.” They all just say brother and sister, period. It helps.

      The other big help for us was vacation. It doesn’t have to be big or flashy or crazy expensive. We went on a few weekend trips to nearby towns together and that kind of togetherness did a LOT for bonding between the big kids. When the baby was a year old, we were fortunate enough to go on our first ever longer vacation for two weeks that really helped bond the oldest to our youngest especially, since she doesn’t live with us full time. Sites like homeaway.com or vrbo.com, etc. helped because we were able to save a of money on rentals that could hold all of us and were always cheaper than two hotel rooms. BUT sometimes, if we’ve ever gotten a hotel room, we put all three big kids in one together and that also helped them bond. They really all do seem happy with our family overall, even if everything isn’t perfect all the time 🙂 And they ALL feel like straight up, first rate family….which is so not how I felt as a stepkid growing up (and why we’ve made this a priority).

  6. There is no right way to do it! I am a stepmom to a 4 1/2 yr old headstrong girl, and mama to a 7 month old. She adores her little brother, but she is also acting out like crazy all the time. We just ignore the bad behavior and praise the good, and keep moving forward.

    And yes, I call her my stepdaughter, but only because she makes damn sure everyone knows I am her STEPmom. It is her thing, and I respect that.

  7. My husband comes from a family with a lot of half-siblings. His older, half sisters were both out of the house before he was 5, so he just isn’t as close to them. He sometimes Referrers to them as “my sister” but when he wants to be clear that he is NOT talking about his full sister, he will say “my half-sister so and so”.
    I guess I don’t have any advice, but considering the age difference, it’s probably going to feel like two distinct groups of siblings (older and younger) whether they share the same parents or not.

  8. I know that many people are encouraging you to banish the “step” and “half” from your house, but I am going to argue for the opposite. I am closer to my full sister than any of the half or step siblings I have–and always will be. We went back and forth together. We have the same mom and dad and so an identical family set up. That bond is and will always be stronger.

    I have always found it rather insulting when my step-mother has tried to make it seem like we should all be one big happy family–that we should be as close to the siblings she is mother to as to each other. I think that is a bit ridiculous. She is not my mother, she never will be, and her children (even if my father is their father) will never be the same to me as my sister. Period.

    • I am one who argues to banish step and half from vocabulary. We have four with a fifth on the way, I was also a stepkid with a terrible experience.

      However, I think it’s WHOLLY possible to encourage kids to bond as best you can between steps and halves while absolutely respecting that not all bonds are going to feel the same to each kid in some prescribed way. In our brood of four, two are full siblings and that bond is definitely there. We don’t need to act as if they AREN’T super close, they just ARE. They go back and forth together, they are close in age, they live together, etc. I think putting a pollyanna spin on it all can be harmful and not genuine…and your kids will see right through it. But getting rid of that separating vocab plus simply providing opportunities for everyone to bond better can go a long way. I guess our goal isn’t to make everyone put on a happy face and sally forth, but to bond as best they can and for US to respect that all of these kids belong to OUR family. This IS one family and we don’t want any one of them to feel less than any other.

  9. I’m going to speak from personal experience. I was 14 when my younger brother (half…we have the same dad) was born. It was somewhat of a different situation for me because I’ve never lived with my dad but I did visit him on weekends. Now, I will say that my brother and I are extremely close (and he is sooo stoked to be an uncle at 12 years old with my son) but the beginning was rough. I was very excited and relieved when I found out my stepmom was having a boy (I have another half brother (same mom)closer to my age) because then I got to be the “only girl.” Selfish, but how I was feeling at 14. However, there were lots of moments of jealousy — jealousy that he got to grow up with my dad in the house 24/7 and I didn’t, jealous he was at EVERY family event even wheN I couldn’t be there, and I remember a full blown crying fit when he was four and drew his “family” for preschool and didn’t put me in the picture (I had moved to college that year). I think the best advice I can give is just to be open and communicative with your stepdaughters. My stepmom was great at getting me super involved when I wanted to be and backing off when it was obvious I wanted to do something non-baby related. For me, I’ve never referred to my brothers as half brothers because it made me feel left out of the family. Be ready for discussions about what your family is and why it’s amazing… I felt for so long like I wasn’t really apart of either family (mom, stepdad, their son…dad, stepmom, their son) and was just caught in the middle. So, be ready to discuss some of those hard topics. But really, keep the girls involved if you can (and if they want it) and give them their space when they need it. Also, ASK if they can babysit… don’t just demand it. My parents were great about asking me and I felt so respected when it wasn’t just expected. Everything will fall into place eventually, but there will be some bumps along the way 🙂

  10. I only have step-siblings, but never lived with them, so I only have annecdotal advice, but, I would suggest just dropping the “half” from your language unless explaining the relationship for something very official, such as school/doctors/etc. Also, make sure to involve the girls in your family as well, such as introducing your parents as their grandparents, your siblings as their aunts/uncles or however. They are young enough that this is a really important thing, to be involved in family relationships.

  11. I’m the youngest of our family — my older sister is 13 years older than me and we have the same mom. I always thought she was my sister (like, full blood) because that’s how she was part of my life, and the awkward phrasing I grew up with was saying “my sister’s father” every now and then.

    I think, like others who have written above, that it was harder for her with the changes, but that would have been more with our mom & my dad. Her and I have always been close, despite her age; she was also excited to have a baby sister.

    I agree with just seeing everyone as one family. I guess it’s harder as you only have the older kids half the time. Best of luck! I’m sure you’ll do great.

  12. I also come from a mixed, blended, and later separated family. It seems to me that 14 and 11 are plenty old enough to have conversations about this, and that creating space to hear how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking about the changes to their family will go a long way. Also, doing whatever work you need to do to be ok with wherever they are and not letting your own wishes or hopes for a particular version of family keep you from letting it be what it is. I think what labels you use can be part of the discussion, and the key thing will be building your own relationships with each of your stepdaughters and letting them decide how best to relate to their new sibling. Kids are resilient, and generally good at figuring out what works for them. I think sometimes it’s the adults, who come in with some idea of what’s good and bad and then try to reinforce those expectations, that make it harder than it has to be. Love, respect, and a willingness to let go and trust (the process, the spirit, your intuition, whatever works for you) go a long way.

  13. A big part will definitely be communication – and making time for your older girls!! I grew up splitting the week between my parents’ houses, where I was an only child with my mom, and had three older stepbrothers with my dad. Then, my mom remarried and started having kids – a girl when I was 12, a girl when I was 14, a boy at 16, another boy at 18. After the first two girls, we got in a huge fight and I moved in with my dad, because it seemed that my mom had no room for me in her life anymore. I’m sure it’s totally natural to be fully in love with “your” baby, but in my mind, the biggest thing you can do is keep lines of communication and attention open. (And do NOT assume any babysitting will happen – in the early days, my mom would say “I need to run to the bathroom, grab the baby if she cries” and I wanted to snap back “I’m not the one who went and had a baby!” – though once life evens out, there’s a good chance that they won’t mind keeping an occasional eye out.)

  14. Thank you all for your generous comments. I appreciate hearing about the different experiences that we’ve all had.

  15. My partner was an only child until he was 16. At that point his mum had a baby, closely followed by his dad’s eldest daughter. His dad had another 2 and a half years later.

    He lived with his mum until his sister was a few months old, then moved in with his dad (to go to a different school). Although he lived with his dad while his sisters were little, they were never especially close… he lived in a caravan out the back and spent most of his time there.
    That said, he adores all three of his sisters. They’re now 9, 8 and 6. The youngest two live in a different state and he misses them enormously. I think for him, he was quite independent by the time his sisters were born. He never really expected, or wanted, his parents to include him as you would a younger child. Instead he’s always taken on something of the carer role…and treats his sisters as he would much-loved nieces.

  16. I also agree with abolishing the terms “step” and “half” from your vocabulary. In my opinion, labels like those are extremely divisive and leave people feeling “less than” rather than “equal to” in a relationship.

    I understand with parenting, it’s different–because, biologically it only involves two people, but the amount of siblings possible has no pre-determined limit. You can have numerous siblings all with the same bond to each other.

    It’s easy to love a baby. They’re cute and make funny noises. (And when you don’t have deal with any of the dirty diapers and vomiting it’s even easier! lol) I wouldn’t worry too much about how your girls will react to the new baby. The real work needs to begin long before the baby arrives for there to not be any divides. Your daughters need to know that you love them and are there for them as much as you will love and support their new sibling. That blood lines do not determine loyalties.

    I come from a blended family myself and I think the greatest gift my parents gave to my older brother (10 years older) was to make sure that EACH extended family treated him as a full-member of the family. My mother (his step-mother) is Hawaiian and although he doesn’t have a drop of Islander in him, he’s received every family custom requisite of a Hawaiian child: leis on special days, graduation luaus, he even sings Hawaiian lullabies to his kids. My Tutu (grandma), aunties, uncles, cousins are all his. There is no distinction made by any involved.

    Although my parents and his mother had their share of custody battles and other issues, they made sure all the children involved were only surrounded by love. I was raised to see his mother as an Aunty figure. His other sisters (one half & one step) I consider to also be my sisters and are treated as such by my parents.

    Although I fully advocate a label-free family, there are downsides to a complete unification. You may want to think about how you’re going to help the new baby understand and deal with the fact their siblings have to spend time with their mother’s family. Growing up, I had a really difficult time saying goodbye to my brother. Even though I love his other sisters, it was hard for me to “share” him.

    Regardless, I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of love. Love your daughters fiercely. Let them know that you are there to protect, support, and listen–even when they don’t return the favor. Do not allow divisions to grow in your heart and I have good faith that the unity you’re looking for will come to you! 🙂

  17. I agree that you don’t need to use the term step or half all the time or in regular conversation but banishing them seems like a bad idea. My mom had me when she was 19 and had already broken up with the father who did not want to be involved. She got married when I was 2 years old and her husband was the only Dad I ever knew. My brother is three years younger than me and we’ve always been very close. My mom didn’t tell me that my dad wasnt biological until I was 14 though and she rolled it out like it was some dirty secret never to be spoken about again. Apparently my dad was terrified that I wouldn’t see him the same way but instead of it keeping things from changing, not being able to talk about it or ask any questions made me feel awful. I’ve still not had an open conversation with my parents about it to this day. I know my mom did what she thought was best but don’t make the kids feel like asking questions and even the words step or half are dirty words as if talking about it will ruin the family like mine did.

  18. I agree the language is a huge part of it. I am one of 6, none full blood relation, and almost never have we been living in the same house at the same time. We have never used the terms “step” or “half” to define our relationships, and it makes a huge difference in our perceptions of each other as family.

    As for the age difference, there are 8 years between my younger sister and I. The problems that we faced were primarily jealousy (unfortunately from me). She got to live full time with my dad and I didn’t. Then she would always tag along when I was visiting my dad. Something that might ease that a bit is to make sure the “bio” parent gets one on one special time with the visiting children. Just a thought.
    Congratulations on all your additions!!

  19. My brother and I were fairly young when our parents got together but they weren’t married until I was ten and he was 14. We use stepmom and stepdad simply because our other parents were still in the picture and needed to differentiate, but my brother is my brother even though my mom and his dad are no longer together.

  20. I completely agree with most of the responses. Being one of 7 (1 full sister, 2 “half” sisters, and 3 “half” brothers) this is a topic that I am very familiar with. I am close with most of my siblings. The important part of my childhood was spent with my half brother and sister and my full sister. There was never a distinction made between the two sets of us. I feel like that is a very important part of why we were so close when we were younger. Having said that the other side of this is my half sister from my mom there was a Huge distinction made between my full sister and I and her. I feel like it was mostly bc my stepfather made that distinction and my mother just went with it. If he wouldn’t have been so ignorant about what he was doing with us we might be closer today. Also being in that situation when I was younger has given me a general idea of how I am going to handle it when my husband to be and I have children. I have a daughter from a previous relationship and I plan on giving each child special one on one attention. And also having him do the same thing. You don’t want to create barriers by singling out one child but not another. Also weather you decide to use “half/step” is completely up to your and the child’s discretion. You both want to be comfortable with the decision especially if they are teenagers. And make sure that extended family adhere to your decision. If they don’t its like a slap in the face to the child. Also don’t treat the children differently. I can’t tell you how many fights my family got into bc my stepfather would treat his daughter “special”. All kids want the same thing to be loved, respected, and feel like they matter.

    • “And make sure that extended family adhere to your decision. If they don’t its like a slap in the face to the child.”

      This. This is SO CRAZY important. Part of why I got along so well with my stepfather’s extended family was that they accepted me as “just another one of the grandkids” from the very beginning, even though I was already 11 or 12 and it was our first time meeting.

      My nephew once slipped in a conversation with his stepgrandmother (stepmom’s mom) and called her Grandma. The woman was very quick to correct him “I am not your grandma. I am Elizabeth, to you.” I wanted to punch that woman in the gut. The look on my nephew’s face when she said it nearly broke my heart. It made him feel really excluded and not welcome with “her family”. Needless to say, my nephew has had issues with any new woman that my brother brings into his life.

      Make sure your family is on your team!

  21. I was 12 and my (full) sister, T, was 10 when our (half) sister, A, was born. Our situation was a bit different from yours in that our father had sole custody and our step-mom had been in the picture since I was 6. I remember I was exclusively excited and couldn’t wait for the baby to be born but it wasn’t the same with T. It was extremely difficult for her to go from being “the baby” to having to share attention. She’s always been jealous of A and the fact that she had her mother when ours was seven states away. They’re 26 and 16 and while they haven’t lived together in years, they still bicker periodically. :/ It was easier when our brother was born. By that point I was 16, T was 14 and A was 4. He’s the only boy and slightly autistic so he’s just our “little fellow”. I guess my advice would be to read the girls individually. One or both may need extra attention. I would think that having their mom around would help but since I don’t know from experience I can’t say for sure. And it was said before, but DON’T assume about babysitting. Being taken for granted in any situation sucks but they could transfer that frustration if it exists towards their relationship with the baby. Good luck!

  22. We have three kids in our family– a 13 year old and a 6 year old from my fiancé’s first marriage, and a 5 month old. I’m in the middle on the labels– we have always referred to the 5 month old as the sister of her older two half-siblings. Actually, the 13 year old made that decision herself (to call the 5 month old her sister and not her 1/2 sister), and that was after a long process of MANY conversations about relationships and what can change and what will never change about them. I think that the difficulty of transitioning into this new formation of a family pushed all of us to keep talking about how we all felt– the good, the bad, the really not so fun.

    However, that said, I do refer to the older two as my stepkids– I’m not their mom, and I don’t pretend to be. I am definitely A Parent in our household, and one of the two people in charge of running things, but I have never pretended that they’re my children. I don’t think the older kids have ever felt slighted by that, in fact, the 6 year old has gotten annoyed at friends of his who don’t understand what a stepmom is, and who try to call me his mother. We have a good relationship, but he’s right– I’m not his mom, and that’s ok. I think that what helped though, again, was having lots of open conversations about things. People have assumed that I was the mother of both my stepdaughter and my stepson, and that led to conversations about how they wanted me to handle these kind of situations, because while I would be happy to be seen as their mother (in other words, it’s not an attempt to distance myself from them), I also don’t ever want them to think that I’m trying to take their mom’s place. Even asking this question helped, I think.

    Bottom line– about 400 conversations about relationships and family and how everyone feels about their particular situation.

  23. I am a full-time, single mother of a 5 year old. His biological father has never been involved, thus my son has never felt the love of a father. I haven’t really dated, and my son has basically had me all to himself.
    Recently, I started dating someone I’ve known for at least 15 years. He is everything I’ve ever wanted in a man and I finally decided that opening myself up to love would be good for both me and my son. My boyfriend has 3 children of his own 17,15 year old boys, and a 2 year old little girl.
    My son seems to be having some jealousy issues and has made comments about wanting it to be “the two of us again.” I find that he has been acting up (which has put a strain on my relationship) and “picking” at the 2 year old little girl.
    I need help and direction. My son is such a loving little boy & I truly feel that he will be happy in time.
    What can I do to help this transition? Do you know of any books that help kids with blended families? (I have searched, but they seem sparse) I would also like to find a book specifically about being a big step-brother. My boyfriend and I have opted not to have more children, so these kids may be his only sense of sibling-hood.
    Any advice or resources is greatly appreciated!

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