When Your Child Thinks Something Is Unfair

It's common for kids to complain that something isn't fair.
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Whether your preschooler insists it’s not fair that it’s time to leave the playground, or your 13-year-old thinks not being able to watch a rated-R movie is constituted complete injustice, you’re likely to hear, "That's not fair!" at least a few times during your parenting career.

Each protest over unfairness is an opportunity to teach your child valuable life lessons. The way you respond will have a direct impact on how he deals with other injustices well into adulthood.

If you convince him that he has no control over anything in the world, he’ll develop a victim mentality. But, if you convince him he needs to spring into action each time he encounters something he perceives as unfair, he may grow up to be an overly demanding adult.

The healthiest approach is to respond to, “That’s not fair,” with a balance of empathy and encouragement. Send a message to your child that says he’s mentally strong enough to deal with disappointment and smart to enough to recognize when to address injustice head-on.

Explain That Fair Doesn’t Mean Equal

When your child is upset that you spend more time helping his younger sibling, or he's mad that his older sibling earns a bigger allowance, explain that fair doesn’t mean equal. Instead, you give each child what they need, which means everyone will get different amounts of your time or different types of privileges.

Explain that this is true in the adult world too. Some people require more resources and others earn more money. But that doesn’t mean it’s unfair. That’s just how the world works.

Say, “I’m Sorry You Feel Upset”

Validate your child’s feelings when he’s angry or sad. Even if you think his emotions are out of proportion to the situation, acknowledge how he’s likely feeling.

Labeling the emotion teaches your child feeling words. And knowing that you understand how he feels can help him calm down.

A child who knows you understand he’s upset may be less likely to turn to sulk into an all-out temper tantrum if you acknowledge his emotions. When kids think they aren’t getting their point across, they often feel compelled to show you how upset they really are.

Normalize Your Child’s Frustration

Rather than saying, “Life’s not fair, get over it,” show some empathy by saying, “Yes, sometimes it’s true that life doesn’t feel fair. I experience that too.” Learning how to deal with perceived injustice is a life skill and it’s important for your child to be prepared for that.

When he becomes an adult he’ll need to be able to deal with fairness issues at work or in his relationships. Knowing that he can tolerate unfair situations can give him the confidence to be able to move on when he encounters hardship.

Remind Your Child to Focus on the Things He Can Control

It’s important to teach your child to recognize when he has control over things and when he doesn’t. So while he can’t control the weather, he can control his behavior.

So if he’s sad he can’t go to the park because it’s raining, help him discover healthy alternatives, like playing a game indoors or doing an art project.

If your child insists it’s unfair he has to stay in for recess at school when he doesn’t have his work done, talk about his options. Ask him what steps he could take to get his work done on time so he can play outside with his friends.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

If you don’t address the issue appropriately when your child complains something isn’t fair, you may be at risk of raising a child who whines that everything is unfair. A child who constantly says things like, “It’s not fair Grandma gave Grandpa a bigger cookie than she gave me!” or “It’s not fair I don’t get to be first in line,” will struggle to get along with others.

Kids who continuously keep score or express displeasure that everyday tasks are unfair, usually aren’t looking for fairness. They’re looking for special treatment. They believe they should always get the best of everything.

So each time your child complains that something isn’t fair, look at it as an opportunity to help him gain control over his thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Avoid Arguing About Your Child’s Experience

Avoid saying things like, “Oh your teacher does like you,” or, “You get more things than your sister does every day.” Although you might not agree with your child’s perception, telling him it isn’t true won’t help.

So rather than get into an argument when your child says something isn’t fair, simply acknowledge his experience. Say, “It can be tough when you feel like a teacher singles you out,” or, “I know it’s hard to see your sister get so much recognition sometimes.”

Don’t Reinforce the Injustice

You also don’t want to reinforce your child’s belief that a situation is unfair. Saying something like, “Yes, your coach favors those other kids over you. It’s probably just because he’s friends with their parents.” 

Reinforcing your child’s sense of injustice could lead him to think his situation is hopeless and helpless. Eventually, he may grow resentful and bitter over his perception that he’s treated poorly.

Be a Good Role Model

Pay close attention to your attitude. If you blame other people for unfairly getting ahead or you complain about external circumstances holding you back, your child may adopt a victim mentality.

Even if you don’t say things like, “Oh it’s not fair I didn’t get that promotion,” your attitude will shine through. Try to show your child that hard work, practice, and effort lead to results and when things seem unfair, you are able to deal with it in a healthy manner.

Allow Your Child to Feel Disappointed

It’s important for kids to learn how to deal with uncomfortable emotions, like disappointment and sadness, in healthy ways. Teach your child healthy coping strategies to deal with distress.

Talking to someone about her feelings, coloring pictures, or writing in a journal are just a few examples of ways your child can express her feelings. Proactively help your child explore which strategies work best for her.

Kids who lack coping skills may turn to unhealthy options, like food or even alcohol. Help your child recognize that she can cope with her emotions, rather than escape them.

Teach Empathy

Help your child see that if everything were in his favor, it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. If he always got to go first, all the other kids would think it wasn’t fair. Or, if he gets an equal amount of playing time on the basketball court, even though he never practices, it wouldn’t be fair to the players who work hard to improve.

Teach him to think about other people’s feelings. When your child has empathy for others, he’ll be more willing to share and he’ll be able to be happy for other people who succeed.

Encourage Your Child to Fight Social Injustice

Help your child identify times when it makes sense to fight certain injustices. If a child is getting bullied, or a certain group of people’s rights is being violated, it’s important to speak up.

Teach your child socially appropriate ways to address those. Talking to a teacher, starting a petition, or getting involved in a charity might be healthy ways he can deal with social injustices.

Help your child understand when he encounters an actual rights violation. Make sure he knows that although it’s inappropriate to argue with a referee in the middle of a basketball game, it may be appropriate to start a petition if kids who receive free lunch have to sit at a separate table.

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