Not paying attention when your child says, ‘it’s not fair’ /that’s unfair, is one of the common ways we parents can louse up our relationship with our child.
When kids say this, it means that they feel that they have been unjustly wronged. Sometimes this could be true and sometimes it could be a matter of them looking through their own narrow perception.
Whatever it is, as a parent it is critical to listen and acknowledge a child’s feelings. If they are accusing you of unfairness, particularly when it involves a sibling be quick to address it. A lifetime of sibling rivalry has been the outcome of unaddressed parental unfairness, real or perceived.
I recollect once angrily accusing my mother of being unfair when she gave my brother a bigger allowance for a school outing. Instead of telling me to keep quiet, she calmly said, ‘you know that’s not true. Don’t you keep taking money from your father daily while your brother never asks the same. So is it not fair I give him something more.’ I remember feeling so embarrassed that she knew of my secret but I also remember feeling that deep sense of fairness etched into my psyche.
Holding Space Calmly
The greatest gift we can give kids is to help them look at the situation calmly and logically while taking into account what they are feeling.
If it is some outside influence, then one needs to discuss the matter with the child and find solutions. How to deal with the threat to their selfhood or whether to ignore it.
When we hold space for their feelings and guide them to having more broad and healthy ways of perceiving their experiences. This will help them become more understanding, reasonable and objective. Fairness in childhood is key to a more tolerant and caring society.
In essence, children need to know that their parents are their safe haven who can be counted on to be fair and just.
Unfairness and Threat Response
In humans, the concept of fairness is closely linked to survival.
Furthermore, being treated fairly means you are accepted by the tribe and would be protected and given access to resources. Whereas unfair treatment puts your survival at risk – you could get thrown out.
A sense of unfairness triggers our nervous system to activate a threat response and this can last for days or even years.
When your child is expressing their deep sense of injustice it means they feel their existence is being threatened. And the anger they feel in the face of unfairness is an innate defensive response.
It is imperative you pay attention to their shrieks of unfairness.
Unfairness and Sense of Identity
Recent research indicates that a sense of fairness might be innate. Unsurprisingly, kids while they’re just toddlers seem to have a moral compass. However, parental behaviors towards their offspring influence the eventual moral development of their children.
Parental favoritism is one insidious way in which parents damage their kids. Both the favored child and the discriminated one are affected.
The favored child feels he is entitled to everything with no regard to others’ needs or feelings and the neglected child feels they ‘don’t belong’, that they are ‘less-than’ and ‘flawed’.
Growing up being treated unfairly, affects a child’s identity for life. I know post my mother’s death being treated unfairly – not being given things to eat while my cousins ate really affected my self-esteem. I grew up with a different kind of food trauma and feeling I was not worthy of fair treatment. It influenced my bad life choices and thus my spiral into further feelings of ‘not being good enough’.
Notwithstanding, consistent unfair treatment affects our brain and changes our brain wiring.
Unfairness and The Brain
The amygdala, the threat-processing region, gets activated in response to injustice, triggering feelings of anger. In addition, unfair treatment activates the anterior insular cortex (AIC), a brain center that processes a person’s sense of disgust not just to smells and sight but also moral disgust.
No wonder when someone behaves unfairly we say, ‘they stink‘. It’s our interoceptive insula that triggers this visceral feeling. We don’t want to be around them.
Down-Regulating The Indignity Response
However, what happens when we have to deal with these bloody stinking people all through our childhoods. We down-regulate our indignity response using our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain).
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) typically related to inhibition and impulse control becomes active when people face an unfairness and have to decide what to do. Research suggests this is because the region somehow suppresses our judgment of fairness. Thereby reining in our natural tendency to act in our own self-interest and protest.
Long-term suppressing of our innate response to unfairness leads to a person tolerating bad behavior and a lifetime of persistent and unexplained illness, particularly chronic pain. Gabor Maté, in his book, When the Body Says No posits that suppressing our angry response towards unfairness damages key centers in our brain and changes the wiring leading to dis-ease.
Gradually, our trauma response becomes wired into our adult personality – seemingly compliant but filled with dormant resentment. A childhood filled with unfair treatment is the breeding ground for unbridled adult rage.
Teaching Your Child How Deal With Unfairness
Being ever mindful of our behavior and actions is key to being a good enough parent. Additionally, it is important we astutely pay attention and listen with empathy. Don’t gaslight, minimize or invalidate your child’s experiences. Nor do you have to join their accusatory cycle of blame. Listen calmly and acknowledge their feelings. Discuss about the course of action.
It takes a lot of patience and wisdom to teach a child:
- When to stand up in the face of injustice
- Whether to take it personally or not
- Should they ignore and walk away
- Or should they be empathetic/put themselves in the other person’s shoes
Addressing your child complains that something is unfair is vital for their healthy emotional development. If you don’t they could be at risk becoming an envious whiner or a resentful rageaholic. The origins of rage stem from unexpressed unfairness experienced in childhood.
Emotional Agility and Calm
When your child protests of unfair treatment, pay attention. Sometimes, all they need is the reassurance of being heard and cared for. Or sometimes it could be they need the confidence and guidance as to how to tackle someone or something.
There are so many sides to a situation and knowing how to negotiate conflicting situations is a skill in emotional agility. It means not feeling bad about negative feelings and being able to appropriately express, regulate, and manage them. One key skill, is learning move through difficult emotions without getting stuck in that state of mind. And this can happen only when kids are given an opportunity to practice this from a young age.
We want our kids to be sensitive to unfairness, after all ignored injustices lead to an unjust society. The key is knowing when to encourage their feelings of outrage and when to temper them with prudence.
By empathetically addressing our children’s cries of unfairness we shape who they become and how they relate to the world – justly or unjustly.