Who Are Half- and Stepsiblings?

Before we discuss what is known about relationships between children in stepfami- lies, we want to define what we mean by siblings, half-siblings, and stepsiblings (see Fig. 10.1). To help illustrate these relationships, we refer to a well-known “celebrity” family, the Kardashians. Those not familiar with them can easily find hundreds of thousands of sites about them on the internet. Although the former Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner) and his wife, Kris Kardashian Jenner, are divorced, their former stepfamily contained all types of sibling relationships (see Fig. 10.1).

We use the term siblings to refer to children who are biologically related to the same mother and father. Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, and Rob Kardashian are full siblings because they share Robert and Kris Kardashian as their biological parents. Burt and Casey Jenner are full siblings to each other (Caitlyn Jenner and Chrystie Scott are their shared parents), as are Brandon and Brody Jenner (Caitlyn Jenner and Linda Thompson are their shared parents). Kendall and Kylie Jenner are also full siblings to each other (Caitlyn Jenner and Kris Kardashian are their shared parents). In Fig. 10.2 you can see a hypothetical stepfamily that contains two sets of

Kardashian-Jenner family genogram

Fig. 10.1 Kardashian-Jenner family genogram

full siblings. One set of full siblings is the product of their remarried mother and her former spouse/partner, and these siblings live in the stepfamily household with their mother and stepfather. They are labeled resident outsiders because, although they share the stepfamily residence, they are not part of the nuclear family in the residence (i.e., the stepfamily adults and their mutual child). These genetically related brothers and sisters are sometimes called full-siblings or biological siblings. Sibling relationships also exist when the same two parents have adopted children.

The distinction between half-siblings and (full) siblings is not clear to many people. A half-sibling relationship is when two or more children share a biological (or adoptive) connection to one, but not both, parents. In our celebrity family example (Fig. 10.1) , the Kardashians are half-siblings to Kendall and Kylie Jenner, because Kris is the mother of all six of them. All of the offspring who share the Jenner last name that are not full siblings to each other are half-siblings because they share Caitlyn Jenner as a parent. In Fig. 10.2, you can see that the mutual child of the stepfamily couple is labeled a resident insider. This is because the mutual child is part of the nuclear family sub-unit which is within the stepfamily household. The mutual child shares a mother and a household residence with the resident outsiders in Fig. 10.2 and shares a father but not a household residence with the visiting outsiders. However, both the resident outsiders and the visiting outsiders are halfsiblings to the mutual child. It is possible, as in this example, for a person to have half-siblings who are not genetically related to each other. For example, Kim Kardashian is Kendall’s half-sister, as is Casey Jenner, but Kim and Casey are not genetically related to each other.

Stepfamily sibling constellations

Fig. 10.2 Stepfamily sibling constellations

Stepsiblings are not biologically (or legally) related to each other. The four older Jenner offspring are stepsiblings to the four Kardashians (see Fig. 10.1). In Fig. 10.2, the two sets of full siblings are stepsiblings, and they share neither a parent nor a household, although they could share the household from time to time. These siblings have no genetic or legal ties to each other yet they are members of this stepfamily. When a couple remarries or repartners and each adult has children from previous relationships, their children become stepsiblings. Stepsiblings are always part of complex stepfami- lies because there are two stepparents in the family. The households in which they live, however, may contain only the father's children or only the mother’s children.

We try to be careful in defining what these different types of sibling relationships mean. In the past, researchers sometimes have not clearly distinguished between full siblings, half-siblings, and stepsiblings, or where they resided part or all of the time, making it impossible to assess the unique dynamics of each type of relationship. For example, in the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), the interview protocol included stepsiblings and half-siblings in the same question— apparently the researchers who wrote this item did not think it necessary to differentiate between these two types of children’s sibling bonds, leaving researchers with little choice but to assess them as one group (White, 1992). On a side note related to the issue of defining sibling relationships, White (1998), in examining changes between the first two waves of the NSFH data sets, found that approximately 15 % of the adult respondents added or subtracted children in their families, even though there had not been births or deaths in the ensuing 4 years. Instead of assuming that these discrepancies simply were reporting errors, White probed further, considering the influence of changes in how items were worded, the complexity of family structures, changes in family structures between waves, such as remarriages that added stepsiblings, and what she called low sibling salience, or the fact that stepsiblings (and other siblings) may not be consistently counted as kin if they lived elsewhere, changed residences periodically, or had minimal or erratic contact with respondents. White (1992) cautioned researchers to define their terms more clearly so that study participants understand researchers’ meanings for terms that might differ from their own. By doing so, participants may answer questions in a way that more closely matches researchers’ assumptions. This is good practice, but we think researchers should also be aware that family members’ construct their own realities of family life, and their constructions may be independent of scholarly conceptualizations. There are limits to what clear research definitions can accomplish in the face of family members’ personal definitions about their families. For instance, we know people who refer to their stepsiblings and half-siblings as their siblings and to stepfathers as their fathers; no amount of preinvestigation work by researchers to define terms would change how these individuals would respond to questions.

We think there is little doubt that step-relationships of all kinds are underreported in studies because of this phenomenon. For example, researchers were puzzled in a recent study that “a significant portion of youth indicated a parent had a child from a previous relationship, yet did not list any half-siblings” in a survey (Harcourt, Adler-Baeder, Erath, & Petit, 2015, p. 268). The authors speculated that perhaps the adolescent respondents either did not understand the term “half” or did not live with the half-siblings, giving them, as White (1992) called it, low sibling salience. Although these explanations may apply to some of the discrepancies, we think it is highly likely that in the minds and hearts of the respondents to this survey, their parents’ offspring from previous relationships, their half-siblings, were thought to simply be their brothers and sisters.

 
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