Teaching Forgiveness as a Tool for Empowerment, Success
Updated: May 11
“Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle …
... what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again.” – Dag Hammarskjold
Academics? check. Extra-curriculars? check. Work experience? check.
How about forgiveness?
If forgiveness isn’t on the agenda to help prepare kids for the future - based on the long list of its science-based benefits – it should be.
The personal benefits associated with learning to forgive, for adults as well as children and adolescents, are many. Forgiveness has been linked over and over in studies to increased psychological well-being, better sociability and improved health.
Relations with peers are essential for a child’s social, emotional and psychological growth. The skills of forgiveness have been shown as fundamental to sustaining these key relationships with others, and especially critical during development.
Key to social & interpersonal success
Forgiveness is all about relationships.
Studies have found that the concepts of forgiveness during developmental stages can have a massive, positive effect on helping young people cope and navigate personal situations – including in overcoming and moving past negative peer experiences. Remember middle school?
Flanagan et al. (2012) found forgiveness positively associated with conflict-resolution, higher self-esteem, lower social anxiety and less revenge-seeking. Developing the capacity to forgive also promotes the capacity to develop remorse and convey empathy.
Even beyond its power to help set kids up for future relationship success, forgiveness learned early can be an essential character trait benefits well-being.
“Forgiveness is my favorite muscle in the human body.” – Dr. BJ Miller
Forgiveness & mental health, well-being
Forgiveness have been associated with better mental health and ability to cope in young people.
It helps reduce the impact of, and reaction to, stressful events; has been shown to decrease levels of depression.
Researchers RC van der Wal, et al. (2016) found in 9 to 13-year-olds studied, that forgiveness of an offender considered a friend, was linked to greater psychological well-being – including factors like self-esteem and happiness.
“Memories are heavy. Those who truly want to fly forgive.” – Maxime Lagace’
Forgiveness, empowerment & the brain
The reputation forgiveness has as weakness is pure bogus.
Quite the opposite, the ability to forgive has been found to be empowering instead. It serves to release the person offended from the confining cycle of victimization.
When people fail to forgive, they stay angry and stuck. This keeps big and little brains alike, awash in stress chemicals. It also sucks time and energy from more productive activities - like say, learning.
Hanging on to anger and pain results has been shown to restrict reasoning, problem-solving ability, creativity as well as a reduces impulse control.
Dr. Robert Enright, educational psychology professor and pioneer in forgiveness research, found that learning forgiveness can also give kids an academic advantage.
In studying middle-schoolers who had been through painful experiences, he found training in forgiveness led to improvement in: academics across multiple subjects; attitude towards teachers and school in general; and in relations with peers, as well as with parents.
Forgiveness and self-control, maturity spectrum
Forgiveness is not an easy process for adults. Despite its upsides, the act of forgiving is especially challenging for developing children and teens.
Professor Emeritus Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied forgiveness for 30 years. He points to the slow development of self-control in children and adolescents, as severely impacting the ability to develop the skills that forgiveness relies upon.
The brain doesn’t completely mature until age 26. Until then, the ability to control immediate urges and responses is challenging. The process of developing muscles of patience and empathy, especially important in forgiveness, simply takes time.
Forgiveness evolves as children grow, mature
For kids, the definition of what forgiveness means evolves with growing maturity. So too does the motivation behind forgiveness change over time.
In looking at kids in third, seventh and 12th grade, Riek & DeWit (2018) found – for all age groups - that emotions of guilt predicted forgiveness seeking; where feelings of shame, forecasted social disengagement or withdrawal.
As young children begin to understand the impact they have on others around them, claims of forgiveness are generally granted in exchange for something a child wants: If I say X, I will get Y. At the other end of the spectrum, older teens see forgiveness as a way to maintain social relationships.
The high school seniors studied also differed from younger kids in that they were more likely to seek forgiveness when offenses were more vs. less severe in nature.
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders. But they have never failed to imitate them.” – James Baldwin
Modeling and teaching forgiveness is key
Parents who model and teach forgiveness can help instill its powerful benefits in the younger set.
A study by Maio et al. (2008) tracked 114 families over a one-year interval and showed how parents influence forgiveness in children.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the penchant for forgiveness in parents translates to the same in their off-spring. By modeling what forgiveness looks and feels like, parents give kids an understanding of the feelings and expressions connected with forgiving, and being forgiven by others.
Beyond modelling behavior, parents can explicitly talk kids through the process of forgiveness and position the skillset as the strength that it is, rather than a weakness.
Here, learning how to acknowledge and express hurtful emotions, is key. Understanding a range of options available to all of us in approaching painful situations can be an empowering tool.
Like adults, children can benefit from a clear awareness that forgiveness is not condoning or forgetting. Rather, it’s a tool completely within their own control that helps them move past painful experiences.
It has to be genuine to work
Despite where information has devolved to nowadays, simply saying something doesn’t make it true.
Children are often told to ‘say sorry’ to another and it’s left at that. But just saying you’re sorry, like just saying you forgive, will not deliver all the proven benefits. Forgiveness has to be genuine to offer its rewards.
In the absence of any self-reflection, children can sometimes continue a bad habit into adulthood: just saying whatever it takes to avoid discomfort, regardless of sincerity.
“Forgiveness is just another name for freedom.” – Byron Katie
Forgiveness benefits us individually, collectively
For young people developing their way along selfish/selfless continuum – and as a reminder for us adults still stuck in the middle somewhere – it can help to position forgiveness as something that we do for ourselves.
Releasing anger makes room for our own better feelings and new experiences, despite who or whatever we’re forgiving.
Conflict in life is guaranteed. Teaching tactics in how to deal with the hurt – both as the inflictor and as the inflicted – can serve young adults well beyond the formative years.
Coding? Sure. Scouting? Sounds good.
But also instilling the vital know-how and practice of empathy and forgiveness, are looking ever more advantageous, for us each and for us all.
“Forgiveness is a funny thing. It warms the heart and cools the sting.” – William Arthur Ward
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