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Adolescence and the Unfairness of Parents

Being a "fair" parent during their child's adolescence can be harder to do.

Key points

  • The adolescent is more prone to complain about unfair parental authority and family favoritism than the child.
  • About authority, parents can explain how setting healthy limits and demands is part of their custodial responsibility.
  • About favoritism, parents can explain how loving all children the same while treating each individually is the best they can do.
 Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Part of the teenage awakening is to more dissatisfaction with parents who the child tended to idealize, but who the adolescent now finds more grounds to criticize. This can be unsettling to parents: “Before we could do little wrong; but now it seems like we do less right!”

Parental Demotion

Part of this adult fall from childhood grace is a necessary demotion. A more independent-acting and more error-prone adolescent can ill afford to have flawless parents to identify with and measure up to. There is a need to remove parents from their traditional pedestal of perfection, to redefine them in more frail and human terms: “I may not always act right, but neither do they!”

Now is when accusations of adult unfairness can increase. There can be complaints about the injustice of unfair adult authority (“It’s not right that you can tell me what I must and cannot do!”) and there can be complaints about the inequity of unfair family favoritism (“It’s not right when you treat them better than me!”)

Take these one at a time.

Unfairness of Authority

Parenting during one’s child's adolescence is not a popularity contest. Sometimes parents have to say what the teenager doesn’t want to hear. Sometimes they have to ask about what the teenager is not inclined to discuss. Sometimes they have to make demands with which the teenager does not agree. Sometimes they have to refuse requests for freedom that the teenager urgently wants granted. Sometimes they have to check to see that teenage commitments are being kept: “Sometimes our job is simply to stay on your case.”

Expression of parental authority that the child accepted as justified and a matter of course, the adolescent can dispute in defense of growing independence, objecting to the unfairness of living on parental terms: “This is unfair! What gives you the right to tell me what I must and cannot do? You’re not the boss of my world!” Except, until the young person graduates parental care, parental authority is still a lot in charge.

Parents can explain:

We are honoring our job for setting responsible limits and demands for you; we will be firm where we have to; we will be flexible where we can; we will explain our needs and reasons; and we always want to listen to whatever you have to say, so long as it is spoken in a respectful and unharmful way.

Unfairness of Favoritism

Dividing out parental attention, interest, support, and approval so rival children can feel fairly attended to, valued, and provided for is a constant challenge. Because what is specific can be given symbolic value, an impartial decision for one child can seem preferential to the other: “This just goes to show who you love best!” And, thus, the accusation of favoritism can be made.

This is not to say that favoritism is only in the eyes of the young beholder. While I believe most parents do not play favorites, I also believe that some do. For example, favoritism can be based on sex (male or female), age (eldest or youngest), capacity (challenged or gifted), resemblance (similar or different), or development (mature or immature.) When it regularly occurs, parental favoritism can embitter sibling rivalry with envy and cause resentment of parents. “I never could compete with my older brother in their eyes!” “My baby sister was my parents’ little darling all my life!”

Consistent preferential treatment and valuing of one child over another can create a lasting legacy of unfairness that is hard to undo. At worst, it can be made emblematic. Thus, a parent’s or grandparent’s inheritance can give concrete evidence of favoritism—who got the most valued items—that can cause a falling out between adult children. “You got the best, and I got less again!”

I believe in most cases, unfairness of parental favoritism is in the eyes of the children, not in the intention of parents. The perception of their unfairness is a thorny issue that can be honestly addressed.

Parents can explain:

In our treatment of you children, we can never be entirely fair because fairness is always a double standard. In the name of equality, we should love you all the same, and in the name of individuality, we should treat you each differently. So, with every one of you, we try to meet both obligations as best we can.


Unfairness complaints about parents for exercising unjust authority and for indulging in family favoritism often increase during their child’s adolescence.

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