3 Tips for Responding to “It’s Not Fair”

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

“But, it’s not fair!” This phrase, and the tone that comes with it, is a universal button pusher for parents. It inevitably comes a time when you’re already running low on patience, and calmly engaging in a discussion about the fairness of a situation is the last thing that you want to do. Your child is equally as distressed, and because he or she truly believes that he or she has been wronged, your child’s mind becomes focused solely on arguing his or her position in the fairness debate. 

Kids with ADHD identify more situations as being “unfair” than kids without ADHD, and they struggle to move on and let go. Why? In general, kids with ADHD are prone to black-and-white thinking, and struggle to see the gray areas in situations. They also tend to have difficulty looking at things from the perspective of another person, and think that their view of a situation is the only perspective that exists. In addition, when they are frustrated, they have a hard time managing their feelings, and when they feel frustrated they are more likely to think negatively about the things that are happening around them.

It’s challenging to know how to respond when your child complains about fairness. You want to help him or her understand why something is fair despite how it may seem, or learn to be okay with the fact that things in life won’t always be fair. But the life-lesson conversations about fairness that you’ve had with your child in the past don’t really seem to be having an impact.

  1. Plan a brief response that you can use consistently. Think about a brief response that you can use whenever your child complains about fairness. First, acknowledge your child’s feelings of frustration. Let him or her know that you can see why things might feel unfair and that you know this can be upsetting. Then, let him or her know that even though it’s frustrating, “fair doesn’t always mean equal, and equal doesn’t always mean fair.” It can help to give an example, like - if your friend (or sibling) is sick and needs to stay home and miss a party and then I tell you that you also need to stay home because that would make things equal, that would not be fair. If you think your child would benefit from longer, more detailed discussions about being flexible, or understanding the gray areas in situations, then have these talks at another time – when both of you are calm and more open-minded.
  2. Stick to your decision and do not give in. When you give in to your child after they complain that something is not fair, then you are sending the message that complaining is an effective strategy. Essentially, you are rewarding their behavior and inadvertently making it more likely that they will complain about things being unfair again in the future.
  3. Catch your child being good – praise them when they don’t complain. It’s easy to notice the times when your child complains about a situation, but it’s important to look for times when he or she doesn’t complain! Be on the lookout for situations when things didn’t go the way your child had hoped, but he or she didn’t complain about things being unfair. Instead, he or she rolled with the situation and didn’t get caught up in the perceived unfairness. You may need to start by praising “little victories.” If your child complained, but then moved on quickly, then let him or her know that you appreciate the fact that even though he or she wasn’t happy with the situation, he or she was able to bounce back quickly. Praise is a type of reward, and it will help your child become more likely to move on quickly again in the future.

If you follow this three-step approach consistently, you’ll start hearing fewer and fewer complaints from your child about fairness. At the same time, your child will learn that he or she can tolerate feelings of frustration, and that it can feel good to let go and move on from difficult situations.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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