“Forgiveness is the virtue of the brave” ---Indira Gandhi
As caregivers, we are often hoping to help our children learn about the nuances of their relationships and cultivate healthy connections. Helping our children learn how to apologize when another has been hurt by their actions is a valuable part of this process. Another important piece is helping our children learn the importance of practicing forgiveness. Yet forgiveness may be a long and often challenging process and can even be a difficult practice for adults.
A barrier to forgiveness can be the sense of needing to protect oneself. There is often a legitimate fear that forgiveness will leave the person offering forgiveness vulnerable to further harm. Withholding forgiveness can be an attempt to recalibrate the relationship by fostering a sense of control. People may naturally worry that offering forgiveness will be interpreted by the offender as evidence that they can get away with the same behavior again.
Forgiveness does not mean approval. Forgiveness is not a weak response that trivializes, overlooks, or excuses wrongdoing. Offering forgiveness by letting go of our hurt and anger and accepting the other individual is not the same as saying that their behavior was okay. It is important to emphasize that forgiveness is not about forgetting what happened or disregarding important qualities of respect and fairness. Justice and forgiveness can be practiced together.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation occurs when a relationship is repaired based on mutual trust, sharing of beliefs, and friendship. You may not choose to reconcile with the person you are forgiving. The process of seeking understanding and letting go does not require reconciliation.
Forgiveness does not need to be performed in the presence of the offending party. Always consider your own safety first when extending kindness and goodwill towards another person. If interacting with someone could put you in danger, find another way to express your feelings, such as by writing in a journal or engaging in a practice such as compassion meditation.
Forgiveness involves a process where we intentionally manage the negative feelings we have for someone. We transform the negative emotions we feel toward someone that has hurt us by voluntarily letting go of anger, resentment, and vengeance. With forgiveness, we are unwilling to wish harm on anyone. Forgiveness involves making peace with what happened so you can move on with your life. Forgiveness can be described as an act of mercy where one deliberately tries to reduce ill will toward someone that has hurt them and instead, offer them kindness and respect. Forgiveness allows one to let go of the suffering and the burdens caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own). When our heart clings to the anger from a previous hurt, it causes us distress. By using the foundations of understanding, empathy, and compassion, forgiveness allows us to release this distress that arises again and again from the memory of past hurtful events.
There are emotional, physical, and social benefits of forgiveness. When we cling to our hurt and our pain, our suffering increases. Forgiveness heals hurts and interestingly, the primary beneficiary is the forgiver. Working on forgiveness can help us feel better about ourselves and help us cultivate a sense of inner strength. Forgiveness can allow for emotional healing and allow us to move on in life. True forgiveness repairs relationships and helps to restore the inner well-being of the forgiver. Forgiveness is one of the most effective means of healing deep wounds.
Forgiveness cannot be forced. When the conditions are right, forgiveness can arise and flourish. Patience, time and inner strength are required in order to allow forgiveness to come forth. If a parent insists that a hurt child accept an apology, the true process of forgiveness could be hindered. It may be necessary to allow your child a period of time to sit with and try to understand their feelings of anger and disappointment. Being hurt can create a sense of pain, confusion, fear and anger. Being aware of and acknowledging these feelings are an important step in the process of forgiveness. You may then consider asking them if they are ready to consider forgiving the offending party. But make sure you allow enough space and support so that they realize it can be okay not to be ready. They should be able to take all the time they need. If during that time, the problem resolves itself, then there is no need to overemphasize the process of forgiveness as it may have already naturally occurred. It is when the hurt child is suffering from lingering angry and resentful feelings that providing support and guidance in the process of forgiveness may be beneficial for recovery.
It can be helpful for a caregiver to honor, recognize, and acknowledge the hurt that happened. Let them know it is ok to feel hurt and angry and that it can be helpful for them to share their feelings and concerns with a trusted friend or adult. Help provide a calming and comforting presence to allow them to feel safe. Address the hurt-causing behavior in a just way to allow the injured party to know that forgiveness is not about condoning hurting behavior. This can help address the victim’s fears and concerns. Then you can teach what forgiveness really means --deciding to let go of hurt and angry feelings toward a person even though their behavior was harmful. Explain to children that forgiveness is something we do not only for others but also for ourselves. When we can let go of our anger, we decrease our distress, and make space for more enjoyable feelings. Remind them that they aren’t condoning the harm done, and it may not mean full reconciliation, but they are choosing to find a forgiving heart and are willing to move on.
It helps if you start small when building up your forgiving skills. It may be helpful to start with someone they feel they truly love and can forgive. It can also help to begin teaching forgiveness when they are not so hurt and angry, and when faced with smaller conflicts. Eventually, when there is a more serious conflict, parents can remind them to remember what it felt like to forgive in the past.
Let children know it is possible to forgive others even if there has not been an apology. Children that cause harm are experiencing their own hurt feelings and may take some time before they can offer a genuine apology (see my previous blog post on Apologizing and Making Amends). In this situation, when a child offers their forgiveness, no specific words or physical actions are necessary. Forgiveness is simply an offering from their heart that they can cultivate at any time.
This might be a useful skill when your child is not in the midst of intense hurt and anger. You can offer that the offending party may have been confused, mistaken, and misguided. He or she may deeply regret his or her actions. Maybe share a moment to recognize that we all make mistakes. And remind your child that forgiveness is not condoning behavior but instead is a process of opening our heart to someone, who in many ways may be a lot like us.
Most of us tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on others when we make a mistake or cause harm. In self-forgiveness, you are honoring yourself as a person, even if you are imperfect. In self-forgiveness you treat yourself with the kindness and respect that you would offer to a loved one or your dearest friend. It may also help to surround yourself with trusted family and friends who can support you and allow you the time, space, and stability necessary to heal in your own way.
Caregivers can help when they practice acts of forgiveness in everyday life. It’s OK to start with small acts, such as avoiding voicing disparaging comments about others. Avoid expressing bitterness over hurts that occurred months ago that could model clinging to anger and holding grudges. Caregivers can model forgiveness toward each other in front of their kids. When caregivers consistently express forgiveness toward others and each other in their words and actions, their children can follow this example. Take opportunities to share when and why you are forgiving others. Also practice forgiveness in your relationship with your child. Parents who continue to scold children for behavior that occurred months ago are demonstrating a lack of forgiveness. Also, if your actions have caused your child to hurt, admitting you did something you regret and offering a genuine apology will allow your child to be in a position to practice forgiveness.
Pointing out heroes of forgiveness in stories and videos allows children to recognize that anyone can respond with forgiveness to unfair treatment. When children are able to watch conflicts in which they are not actively involved, it allows them the space they may need to further observe and understand the power of forgiveness.
Remind children that offering forgiveness does not require the presence of the person that caused the hurt. They can explore the process of forgiveness by writing in a journal, creating a letter (this may or may not be given to the offending party), or drawing a picture. They can use these options to explore their feelings and, when ready, transform their angry and hurt feelings into forgiveness and understanding.
This being human involves such a rich and complex web of relationships and often brings moments of hurt and rupture. We can empower our children to seek fairness, respect, and justice, but let’s also teach them the skills to cultivate a forgiving heart. By helping them experience the practice of letting go of their anger and hurt they can develop skills to mitigate distress and suffering and cultivate moments of emotional healing and inner peace.
Dr. Tiffany Spanier is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Bellevue location.