When Your Child Thinks Something Is Unfair

Young girl having tantrum in bedroom
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Maybe your preschooler insists that it’s not fair when they have to leave the playground, or your 13-year-old thinks your rule against watching R-rated movies is a complete injustice. The reality is that 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 they deal with both real and perceived injustices well into adulthood.

If you convey the idea that they have no control, your child may develop a victim mentality. On the other hand, if you convince them they need to spring into action every time they encounter something they perceive as unfair, you may end up raising an overly demanding child.

The healthiest way to respond to cries of unfairness is with a balance of empathy and encouragement. Send a message to your child that they are mentally strong enough to deal with disappointment and smart 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 their younger sibling, or they're mad that an 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 privileges.

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

Validate Their Feelings

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

Labeling your child's emotions helps them to learn feeling words. And knowing that you understand how they feel can make it easier for them calm down.

A child who sees you empathizing when they are upset may be less likely to turn sulking into an all-out temper tantrum. 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 seem fair. I experience that too." Learning how to deal with perceived injustice is a life skill that will serve your child well throughout life.

When they become an adult, they’ll need to be able to deal with fairness issues at work and in relationships. Knowing how to tolerate unfair situations can give them the confidence to be able to move on after hardships.

Help Your Child Focus on Things They Can Control

It’s important to teach your child to recognize when they have control over things and when they don’t. For example, while they can’t control the weather, they can control their behavior.

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

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

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

If you don’t address the issue appropriately when your child complains that something isn’t fair, you may raise a child who whines that everything is unfair. A child who constantly says things like, "It’s not fair Grandma gave him 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 them gain control over their thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Avoid Arguing About Your Child’s Experience

Try not to contradict your child with statements like "Your teacher really 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 them it isn't true won’t help.

Rather than getting into an argument when your child says something isn’t fair, simply acknowledge their 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" only strengthens their perception of unfair treatment.

Reinforcing your child’s sense of injustice could lead them to think the situation is hopeless and helpless. Eventually, they may grow resentful and bitter from the belief that they're treated poorly.

Be a Good Role Model

Pay close attention to your attitude. If you blame other people for getting ahead or 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 reveal itself. 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 them in a healthy manner.

Allow Your Child to Feel Disappointment

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

Kids who lack coping skills may turn to unhealthy options, like food or even alcohol. Help your child recognize that it's better to cope with emotions than trying to escape them.

Teach Empathy

Show your child that if things were always in their favor, it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. If they always got to go first, the other kids would think it wasn’t fair. Or if they got equal playing time in the game even though they don't practice, it wouldn’t be fair to the players who work hard to improve.

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

Encourage Your Child to Fight Social Injustice

Help your child identify times when it does make sense to fight injustice. If someone is getting bullied, for instance, or a certain group’s rights are being violated, it’s important to speak up.

Teach your child socially appropriate ways to address these situations. Talking to a teacher, starting a petition, or getting involved in a charity are all healthy ways to deal with social injustices.

Help your child recognize when they encounter an actual violation of rights. Make sure they know 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.

A Word From Verywell

It's no small task to teach your kids the difference between perceived unfairness, times when they must accept that unfairness is part of life, and situations where rights should be defended. But learning how to deal with unfairness is a skill that your child will need for the rest of their life.

As much as possible, try to see things through your child's eyes. Using empathy can go a long way towards soothing their feelings, even as you show them the best way to deal with those emotions.

From there you can talk about the most appropriate way to handle the situation. Your child will then learn two important lessons: that you truly care about their feelings and how to cope when life seems unfair.

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