Has your child ever come home from school in tears because of something another child did to hurt him? Whether it’s teasing, hurtful words or even physical aggression, most parents have had to comfort a child who has suffered due to the deeds of another. I’ve personally been angry at other children for their cruelty and even angry at their parents for raising such mean kids. But in the midst of that, I’ve also had to figure out how to help my child deal with the offense.
What would you do in this situation?
Your child comes home from school, head down and tears rolling down her cheeks. She explains that her best friend told everyone that she has a secret crush on a younger boy at school. Your daughter is embarrassed and devastated that her friend would do such a thing.
A. encourage your daughter to get revenge
B. tell your daughter to no longer be friends with the other girl
C. talk to your daughter about forgiving the girl
D. none of the above
E. all of the above
If your response included talking to your daughter about forgiveness, this just might be the best response. A recent study (van der Wal, Karremans, & Cillessen, 2016) demonstrated the psychological importance of forgiveness in the lives of children.
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness has been defined in a variety of ways. However, in the van der Wal et al. study, forgiveness was defined as “the process of regulating negative emotions, cognitions, and behavior caused by another person’s hurtful behavior into more neutral or positive emotions, cognitions, and behavior toward the offender.”
So what does this mean? Think about a time when someone hurt you and you were able to forgive. Somehow, you were able to manage the angry, vengeful, shameful feelings and thoughts caused by the offense. You were able to avoid revenge and possibly even experience positive thoughts and feelings toward the person at one point. If not positive feelings, you were likely able to at least feel neutral toward the person. You didn’t lash out, try to hurt the person in return or constantly ruminate about ways to punish them. Basically, you figured out how to forgive.
Forgiveness and Children
Using the definition of forgiveness just described, van der Wal et al. set out to determine how forgiveness may relate to psychological well-being in the lives of children. These researchers worked with a group of 275 children from 9–13 years old. These kids were asked a series of questions related to friendship, forgiveness and their personal happiness, satisfaction and self-esteem. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know whether forgiveness of friends and non-friends was related to a child’s psychological well-being.
These authors found that when children were able to forgive close friends, these psychological areas improved. However, when they were unable to forgive close friends, these areas weakened. This wasn’t true of non-friends though. If a child wasn’t close with someone who had hurt them, forgiveness or lack of forgiveness didn’t impact the child’s psychological well-being.
These findings provide us with 5 important reasons to help children learn to forgive those they are close to:
1. Children feel more satisfied with their lives
When asked to grade their lives on a scale of 1-10, forgiving children rated their lives higher on the scale. These children experienced a general sense of overall satisfaction when, despite being hurt, they were able to somehow change their thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the person who hurt them.
2. Children feel happier
It may be that when children are hurt by a friend, they struggle with a desire to maintain the friendship coupled with an internal battle with anger, desire for revenge or bitterness. This internal tension can cause children to feel less happy. However, when they are able to forgive, this tension is relieved and they feel happier.
3. Children have increased self-esteem
Kids feel more positive about themselves and who they are when they forgive. In addition, according to Flanagan et al. (2012), less forgiving children have lower self-esteem and tend to be more socially anxious.
4. Children maintain friendships
Friendship is a very important part of childhood. Learning how to maintain long-term friends is part of this. Forgiveness plays an integral role. If children aren’t able to forgive friends, they likely won’t maintain any long-term relationships. As an added bonus, if forgiveness and reconciliation are possible within a relationship, the relationship often becomes stronger.
5. Children learn conflict resolution
The opposite of forgiveness can be seen as anger, shame, vengefulness, resentment and any behaviors that evidence these things. If children engage with others who have hurt them by taking revenge, or even by avoiding the other person, they do so at the risk of not learning how to manage conflict. However, when they must find ways to disengage from these negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors, they learn new strategies for dealing with painful situations and hurtful people.
Teaching Children Forgiveness
It is unclear from this particular study exactly how to help children become more forgiving. However, let me provide some suggestions:
1. Educate children about the behavior and attitude aspects of forgiveness
Just telling children to forgive isn’t enough. Explain to them that forgiveness includes:
- Behavior change: not getting revenge, not using mean words, not spreading gossip, etc.
- Attitude change: changing anger to something more neutral, letting go of bitterness, replacing negative thoughts with neutral or positive thoughts.
2. Remind children that forgiveness is often not a one-time experience
Behavior and attitude changes don’t occur overnight. Remind kids that forgiveness is a process and an ongoing decision that requires action on their part to make the necessary changes.
3. Talk about the pros and cons of forgiveness
Teach children about the possible positive results of forgiveness: increased happiness, satisfaction and self-esteem. Remind them that a choice not to forgive may lead them to be less happy and feel worse about themselves as a person.
4. Model forgiveness
When conflict arises with a family member, spouse or friend, allow your child to see how you show forgiveness in your behavior (ie: not retaliating in words or actions) and in your attitude (not holding a grudge).
A Christian Perspective
Forgiveness is commanded of us in scripture:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
It is also offered to us freely:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
Yet, if parents do not purposefully model and teach children how to forgive, they may not learn it. Obviously our best teacher of forgiveness is Jesus Christ himself. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). Despite the fact that we continually demonstrate disobedience and lack of reverence for His deity, He forgives as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Early and often we need to remind children of this sacrifice. However, we must also model this form of forgiveness in our relationships with others. When in conflict, we must show that forgiveness is possible and even necessary to maintain relationship. Lack of forgiveness hurts relationships. If we aren’t able to forgive those in our lives who cause us pain, how can we expect our children to do the same – whether it’s forgiveness toward a friend, sibling or even toward us?
Until next time,
Visit my Bible Study blog here.
Want to learn more about the psychology of forgiveness? http://www.evworthington-forgiveness.com/
Limitations of this study
As a “cross-sectional” study (a study done at one point in time with differing groups), we cannot deduce cause and effect. We cannot say with certainty that forgiveness increases psychological well-being. It may be that children with greater psychological well-being are more likely to forgive.
Flanagan, K. S., Van den Hoek, K. K., Ranter, J. M., & Reich, H. A. (2012). The potential of forgiveness as a response for coping with negative peer experiences. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1215–1223.
van der Wal, R. C., Karremans, J. C., & Cillessen, A. N. (2016). Interpersonal forgiveness and psychological well-being in late childhood. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 62(1), 1-21. doi:10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.62.1.0001