Forgiveness can be a difficult skill to teach children, and it requires practice. It’s a process of consciously letting go of hard feelings like anger, frustration and sadness when someone has made a mistake. It’s saying “thank you” or “that’s okay” when someone apologizes. It’s having patience with yourself and others and recognizing that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s letting go of hurt feelings and moving ahead. Think of it this way: Do you recall a time when someone teased you? Do you remember his or her name? I remember a classmate, Kerry, in elementary school who didn’t want me to play with her or her friends at recess. She pushed me down on a metal grate on the playground and I ripped my pants and my knee. I remember it like it was yesterday. Fortunately, I don’t hold any ill feelings toward Kerry, but if I did, I’d have to work on forgiving her to let go of the feelings.
So how do we teach our kids to forgive? Let’s look at what forgiveness IS and IS NOT.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. It doesn’t mean when someone hurt you that the behavior is not wrong or they can keep hurting you. It means finding it in your heart to give the person another chance. In reality, to forgive is to say, “I didn’t like or appreciate what you did, but I’m willing to let it go because it doesn’t help me to hold on to these feelings.” It’s important to let our children know if someone keeps being unkind, they should tell someone - either mom, dad or an adult at school.
Forgiving someone is realizing that each of us has sole responsibility for our emotional lives. Each person we encounter has had problems (loss, abuse, trauma) and your act of forgiving is taking responsibility for your own sense of emotional health knowing if you stay angry, it is really hurting yourself.
Forgiveness is an emotional process of clearing past hurts so you can be free to live your happiest life. It’s a process of "changing the story" to make whatever happened an opportunity to expand your heart to others.
What should we do as parents when a situation arises that forgiveness is needed? There are steps we can take to help teach forgiveness to our children:
First, acknowledge what happened. Even though we may feel it is something insignificant that occurred or your child should just “get over it”, you should discuss the event. Ask what happened before, during and after the incident occurred.
Second, ask your child how this incident made them feel. Remember to remain judgement free as it is their experience and feelings. Let them express their negative feelings. No feeling is wrong. This step is also an opportunity to teach empathy and have your child “put themselves in the other’s person’s shoes.” Explore reasons why the other person may have acted in a certain way and what his or her friend might have been thinking. Reframing the incident teaches your child to think about others.
Next, encourage your child to talk it out with the person. Your child can ask why he or she did or said something that was hurtful. Your child can tell the person how it made them feel (sad, mad, hurt) and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not the person apologizes or not is not always important, but it is key for your child to say the words “I forgive you.” Saying the words can actually helps kids break free from the emotions which make forgiveness difficult. When it is verbalized, you acknowledge that your friendship is bigger than whatever caused the fight and that you truly want to move forward together. Hugging it out always helps too!
In therapy, there are activities we use to build on the skill of forgiveness. There are games and books we read and discuss together which teach empathy. We work on communication and assertiveness skills to aid in discussing their feelings with the person who hurt them. There are also activities such as writing a letter and tearing it up or sharing it with a trusted adult or using a balloon to blow their feelings in and releasing it.
There will be situations in all our lives which require us to forgive during our childhood and adulthood. Part of our role as parents means we need to help guide our children on the art of forgiveness. When parents teach their kids how to truly forgive, we set them up to succeed and create a foundation of strength as well as self-love. Isn't that what every parent wants … kids that are happier, more compassionate and forgiving of self and others??