Five-year-olds Jenna and Eva are in the family room playing. They’re good friends and they get along for the most part, but Eva comes running in to the kitchen crying to you that Jenna has taken away her stuffed bear and called her a baby.
As referee/parent, you listen to Eva’s account sympathetically. Then you call Jenna in to hear her side of the story. After assessing the situation, you determine that Jenna is out of sorts and needs to apologize.
“Say you’re sorry you took Eva’s bear away and hurt her feelings,” you prompt.
“I’m sorry,” says Jenna automatically.
Now what? Should Eva grant forgiveness to her friend? Is on-the-spot forgiveness reasonable to expect of a child this age? After all, adults don’t generally work things out so easily; sometimes they carry around bitterness or inflict the silent treatment on others for years!
We asked two noted clinical psychologists for their advice on how to guide kids through the important but sometimes painful process of forgiveness.
Hurt Is Part of Life
“As parents we must teach our children that life hurts us, people hurt us, we hurt other people and we hurt ourselves. That is what relationships and life are about,” says Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist with two decades of clinical work and the author of Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person (Author House, 2012). “The sooner we let our children in on this secret, the healthier their life approach will be.”
The apology situation above is a common ritual that parents employ to teach manners; “but manners are not forgiveness,” says Jolene Ross, Ph.D., founder and director of Advanced Neurotherapy, a wellness clinic in Needham. As a psychologist for 35 years and an educator for seven, Ross asserts that a “forgiveness ritual” is appropriate, but she stresses, “We need to teach kids at all stages of development not to align themselves with someone who’s abusive to them. While you want kids to have compassion for others, they also need to know that it’s OK and sometimes in their best interest to distance themselves.”
Campbell notes that as soon as children are old enough, they should be taught emotional language: “I’m angry with you. That’s my toy.”
Toddlers forgive naturally and generally respond well when a parent intervenes and tells them that the hurtful situation is over, says Ross. If they do not, it may be an indicator of something wrong that needs to be addressed – for example, they may have trouble making transitions.
If a child is bitten or hit by another child, she advises, “Comfort the victim, and to the child who is the perpetrator, say, ‘No biting. No hitting.’ Then give alternative behaviors, such as ‘Use your words.’”
While kids eventually come to realize that life is not fair, this isn’t something that needs to be addressed at this point in their lives, says Ross.
To teach forgiveness, Campbell advises:
• Use emotion words. “Forgive” is not too big of a word or concept for this age, she says, “as long as it’s associated with something tactical they can apply. They can learn to say, ‘You are forgiven.’” Using words like mad, sad, glad and afraid helps perpetrators understand the results of their actions and helps forgivers understand their reactions, she notes.
• Embrace each other. Touch soothes pain and it’s a useful tool in a little tiff to have children embrace. “Touch breaks down walls and emotionally reconnects people. If [kids] don’t want to hug, they can shake hands,” says Campbell.
There’s more about teaching your child forgiveness on the next page!
• Reinforce the forgiveness. “Offenses at this age usually come from acts of unkindness, such as not sharing, or, in many cases, accidents,” she says. “Some children might have a hard time and ‘forget’ they forgave the other person. This is OK, as the heart takes time to heal when it is offended. … Reinforce forgiveness by talking about the good things the offender has done [on other occasions].”
• Use books, emotion puppets and sign language videos. Children at this age are visual, and there are great resources that teach and show forgiveness, says Campbell. Encourage kids to “make a face” while imagining how another person is feeling. Point out situations in films and TV that call for feeling for someone else.
“Children are most likely to learn empathy when their own emotional needs are met, cared for and seen as important in the home,” Campbell adds. “They have strong attachments to their parents and can count on them for emotional and physical support, and this makes them transfer this type of caretaking out into the world with their peers who are in distress.”
Campbell notes that at this age, peers become more important, as does comparing oneself to one’s peers. Kids also begin to have feelings of jealousy and more of a concept of being liked or not liked. Common conflicts that arise include friends excluding friends, pushing, cutting in line, bullying and taking something that doesn’t belong to you, says Ross. Being betrayed in friendships can cause deep hurts.
“Help the child generate options of how to handle situations,” she recommends. Move away from spoon-feeding or supervising an apology ritual to allow kids to negotiate it themselves.
Both she and Campbell suggest role-playing. Otherwise, she says, parents are wise to let children know they have it in them to stand up for themselves. “When we believe in our children, they more naturally believe in themselves,” she says. Other tips:
• Teach kids to love themselves. Give them a lot of positive verbal affirmation.
• Help them work through grudges.
• Model the behavior. Apologizing to your children is great modeling!
“Many teens lose themselves in first loves or crushes so when they end, teens feel completely lost,” says Campbell. She advises teaching teens not to sacrifice their friends and other social commitments for their romantic relationships, so “if and when it ends, they don’t fall in an abyss of being alone but into a supportive group.”
According to Ross, “the way to build empathy and forgiveness is through understanding the other person’s story and therefore their motives. Teens might need counsel on moving on following a hurt. Ross suggests:
• Help them broaden the picture: “This is so what you are working on learning!”
• Help them “debrief” following a situation: “What did you learn about your conduct, your values, the attributes in a partner that you value and those you find unacceptable?”
“Looking at what was learned after each incident and each relationship ultimately adds up to the ability to successfully negotiate an intimate relationship,” Ross explains.
Cambell advises that parents strive to teach teens:
• that conflict is part of life they need to learn to navigate.
• that there is a healthy phase of silence for both parties that needs to happen after a heartbreak, which is good for healing and moving on.
• that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning mistreatment.
• that forgiveness brings peace.
She adds, “Teach them that we are all human and can find commonalities with every person we meet that we like and don’t like.”
Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.
Read our article “5 Steps to Forgiveness” for more information here.