Once we’ve thought through what treating our kids the same means, we have to know how to communicate to them that we care about them equally.  It’s particularly difficult when we are trying to blend step-siblings or transition a foster child into our home.  The non-biological children are extremely sensitive to favoritism, and often see it when we don’t think it exists.  They also tend to interpret any different treatment as unfairly letting someone else get away with breaking the rules.  So we need to figure out how to communicate to our kids that they are a part of the family just as every other child in our home.  As with most parenting challenges, there are few hard and fast rules, but there are some important principles that can guide us.

1.   Acknowledge and Listen.  One popular response is to just tell our kids that life isn’t fair and they need to get used to that fact. Of course life is not fair, but the saying is a prime example of a true statement that is not helpful.  Your kids will have no idea what you mean, and you might as well be speaking a foreign language.  Any platitude will make the kids feel that you do not care about what they think and are just ignoring their opinion.  

Instead, acknowledge their feelings and ask for their perspective.  As I mentioned in my last post, we always need to be open to feedback, even if our kids are being snarky and immature in giving it to us.  They will notice habits that no one else sees, and we should pay attention to them.  Even more important, they need to believe that we listen to them.  Even if we do not agree in the end, they still need to be heard.

More importantly, just because their perceptions are not accurate doesn’t mean that they are not real.  Their beliefs and feelings are real to them, no matter what we think about how they match objective reality.  Downplaying our kids’ realities won’t convince them and definitely won’t build a relationship.

2.  Don’t Over-explain.  Once we’ve started a discussion with our children about the rules, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to get them to agree with us.  Don’t.  Our children rarely have enough life experience or maturity to understand our perspective, and they rarely are going to agree with you, anyway.  I used to go down this road because, as a left-brained lawyer, I tend to think that brilliant logic (mine, of course) can win the day.  Emotions, however, are not susceptible to logic, and at best you are just wasting your time.  At worst, they are hearing something entirely different than you think you are saying.  So spend some time explaining, but keep it short and simple.

Also know that sometimes the explanation is one that your child simply won’t accept.  Younger children, for example, really don’t like hearing that older siblings get more screen time or a later bedtime because they are older.  That is a valid difference, however, and one that you do not need to spend a lot of time explaining.

3.   Explain the Concept of Different Needs at Different Times.  When you do explain, concentrate on the theme that your goal is not to treat everyone exactly the same, but to help different people meet different challenges.  For example, children can understand the analogy that a sibling with a broken ankle needs a crutch and a different chore than taking out the trash.  You can go from there to explaining how a child who has suffered trauma has invisible injuries that you have to take into account.  Your children may not like that explanation, but they usually can understand it.

In your discussion, try to keep away from anything that sounds like rewarding neediness.  We don’t want to encourage our children to explore their victimhood in order to avoid unpleasant chores or get benefits.  Try to find and explain some other way that the other child is contributing to the family team, such as doing another chore or having to double up later.  Concentrate on measuring progress, not exhibiting particular behavior.

One contentious area that is hard for children to understand is cell phones.  When a foster child moves in, for example, their cell phone may be the only tie they have to family and friends from their old life.  Having to move to a new place with new people already is traumatic; losing their only communication with their old life may just compound that trauma.  All of that is very complicated for a resident child who doesn’t have the same privileges.  Don’t let that child’s complaints stop you, if you think the new child needs some time to adjust to the house rules.  It is our job to respond to each child’s needs, whether other children can understand it or not.

4.   Keep Giving Freely Without Expecting Anything in Return.  The final, and most important, thing to communicate to our children is that we care about all of them.  Sometimes a child’s complaint that we are treating them differently is just not liking a rule or not understanding what “the same” actually means.  Sometimes, however, the core message of “you’re not treating me the same” is that the child doesn’t think we love him or her.  If this is the message, then logical explanations won’t work.  We have to find ways to show them how much we care about them.

We can’t expect children to just know how much we care about them.  Sometimes they don’t see it; other times they won’t accept it.  That sense of being unloved often is a default for foster children who have been through a lot of placements.  They protect themselves from disappointment by starting out with the thought that we do not love them.  

Stepchildren can adopt the same attitude with less intensity.  Whether they blame themselves or their biological parents for disrupting the family or blame you for being the person who is not supposed to be there, they may prefer to continue seeing themselves as unloved or unappreciated.

We cannot control these reactions, but we have to recognize them.  We also need to do what we can to let them know that we love and are committed to them.  We have to look for affirmative ways to help the complaining child feel loved and accepted instead of left out.  Maybe we need to compliment them more often or find small tangible rewards for school grades and other accomplishments.  Each child responds to different incentives, and we need to tap into each child’s individual currency to communicate our care for him or her.

Some children have triggers from past trauma, while others will view a rule through a lens that has nothing to do with us.  When we listen to the child, we need to be open to the possibility that this child at this time needs a different rule or different consequence.  While we can’t let a child’s complaints change rules that keep them safe, we do need to adapt to a child’s history from before we entered their lives.  

If we can’t adjust the rules, we need to find other ways to communicate our concern.  This is one area where overcompensation may not be a bad thing.  Children with trauma need more reassurance than children without it, and there is no way around that fact.  We have to be proactive about finding times and ways to reassure them.  I know that task is not easy, and I haven’t been very good at it sometimes.  We all have busy lives and some kids seem to be just black holes of emotional neediness. It’s hard to give them enough reassurance, and for some kids, it seems that nothing is enough.  It can be exhausting, but we have to keep trying.  

There is no perfect way to reassure children that we care about them.  It is the most important thing we can do, however, and the foundation that makes all the others work.


There’s no single answer to children who think we are treating them unfairly.  Each situation will need a different response from us.  All of our responses, however, have to be rooted in caring about our children and finding ways to communicate that care.  We have to start with unconditional care for them, and keep caring about them no matter their response.  Only when they believe that we care about them will they be willing to understand why we believe we are treating everyone the same.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.