Children of all ages are often asked to let go of upset when another child breaks their toys or someone steps on their toes or when their parent is late picking them up for something.

Parents may say to their child: “Try to understand” or “I’m sorry, please be OK with my mistake.”

When children go along with the expectation that they forgive and move on, and when they appear to get over their upset, I sometimes wonder, are they really OK with it or just doing what they are told?

True forgiveness means that the person has made a conscious decision to let go of anger and negative feelings that come after being hurt by someone else. Research studies have found that although children may have a natural tendency to fight back or get back at the person who hurt them, choosing not to react and instead forgive can result in better friendships and a better quality of life overall.

One part of teaching children to forgive is teaching them about having compassion for others. Compassion allows children to see outside of themselves and, in the case of forgiveness, to feel for the person who hurt them.

Compassion for others allows people to more easily forgive others when they blunder. It also teaches people to forgive themselves when they make mistakes. Forgiving oneself and recognizing one’s humanity is as important as forgiving others. People who are able to do this have an easier time forgiving others.

Teaching children to forgive empowers them to make a healthy choice in response to what someone else has done to them. Those who do not forgive may end up angry, and some may even feel like a victim, and neither response is healthy if it is not resolved.

Here are some examples of ways parents can teach their children to forgive others:

1. Model forgiveness at home. Start by vocalizing self-forgiveness when you make a mistake that hurts someone else: “I really tried to be here on time, but the traffic made it impossible. I’m sorry, and I’m going to have to leave earlier next time, as I’ve learned that I need a lot of time.” Children learn most directly through the adults in their environment. If parents and older siblings practice forgiveness, this will help younger children learn to practice forgiveness.

2. Teach children that sometimes people hurt others without intending to do so. In these cases, it’s important to understand this and be able to move on. For example, someone may not be included in an event or party because he or she was overlooked and not intentionally excluded. Recognizing this possibility allows people to more easily forgive when they are hurt.

3. View others as essentially good and people who do not want to be intentionally hurtful. Teach children to always give others the benefit of the doubt and to take actions at face value, without reading into others’ behaviors.

4. After someone has been hurt, practicing forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. The offending person’s actions should be treated as information that helps the hurt person determine what kind of relationship he or she wants to have with this person going forward.

5. Allow and encourage your children to express their feelings after being hurt. Encourage them to express these feelings as part of the forgiveness process. Examples of this include: “I was hurt that I was not included, and I forgive you for not thinking of me” and “It upsets me that you borrowed by shirt without asking, but I forgive you.” After expressing hurt feelings, it is easier to genuinely forgive the other person. 

Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Ask a question or make a comment at kate@drkateroberts.com.

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