Like adults, kids sometimes feel wronged by others—when they aren’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party or a friend divulges their secret, for example. But in the midst of their anger or hurt feelings, they may not realize that forgiveness is an option.
When I asked my three-year-old what it means to forgive, he replied by blowing me a kiss. But the way researchers define forgiveness is different from pardoning, condoning, excusing, or reconciling. Forgiveness has to do with making a decision to free yourself from holding on to resentment and feelings of revenge toward someone who hurt you.
In a 2017 research review, Reine van der Wal and her colleagues explained that retaliation may be children’s first response to others who have offended and hurt them. Even though retaliation is risky, kids may feel like they are merely responding in kind and offering a warning to those who might provoke them in the future. But acting with vengeance comes at a high cost: Vengeful kids may become more withdrawn, be less accepted and more rejected by other kids, and have fewer or lower-quality friendships.
On the other hand, choosing to forgive can de-escalate a cycle of conflict and preserve a valuable friendship. Below are three tips for parents to help their children build up their forgiveness muscle.
1. Model forgiveness within the family
The research review by van der Wal and her colleagues points to the importance of children learning about forgiveness within the family. Parents can teach their children about the value of forgiveness by regularly practicing it in their own lives.
In a 2008 study by Gregory Maio and his colleagues, 95 British families (mothers, fathers, and their 12- to 16-year-old children) completed questionnaires about their forgiveness twice over the course of a year. The findings? Parents who were more forgiving toward their children at the start of the year tended to receive greater forgiveness from their children at the end of the year.
“This finding supports the notion that children learn forgiveness behavior modeled by their parents,” Maio and his colleagues explain.
Our kids notice that we sometimes feel hurt by others, too, including by family members (and our kids themselves)—when our annoyed sibling snaps with unkind words, or our absent-minded partner isn’t there for us when we really need him, or our teen divulges private information that leads to a strained relationship with our own best friend. Although our emotions can feel intense in those moments, our kids are looking to us to see the range of responses that are possible. Being able to talk them through your decision to take steps toward forgiveness can be especially powerful after they see you face adversity.
2. Support young kids’ capacity to respond to their strong emotions
Executive functions—being able to play with information in your mind (working memory), stay on task and resist impulses (inhibition), and think creatively and from different perspectives (cognitive flexibility)—may also play a role in children’s forgiveness, according to van der Wal and her colleagues. Being able to inhibit impulses may help kids to consider forgiveness as an alternative when they’ve been wronged by someone, rather than act on a knee-jerk urge to retaliate. In a 2010 study, Tila Pronk and her colleagues proposed that this is because executive functioning helps kids respond better to their strong emotions.
One way to enhance kids’ emotion regulation may be pretend play, at least according to a recent study with 100 four-year-olds by Thalia Goldstein and Matthew Lerner. Kids randomly assigned to a dramatic pretend play group practiced playing games such as walking around the room as if the ground were sticky, as if they were a baby, or as if it were cold; or playing a role such as a chef preparing a meal. Other kids were randomly assigned to two other groups for non-pretend play: block building or story time.
Then, the researchers measured children’s ability to manage their emotions, asking how they felt after hearing stories about someone’s distress or actually seeing a researcher bump her knee or hurt her finger. Kids in the dramatic pretend play group were better able to manage their emotional distress after the experiment, compared to the non-pretend play groups.
What can parents do to help? Playing dress-up with silly costumes and encouraging kids to use their imaginations to be characters in fantastical worlds isn’t just fun; it allows kids to practice becoming aware of, embodying, and responding to various emotions—which in turn may help them deal with intense emotions and consider forgiveness when someone offends them. You can also teach kids how to take self-compassion breaks—to feel their feelings, remember that other kids get hurt, too, and be kind to themselves—when they are struggling with provocations from their peers. This coping strategy may help to buffer the stress they feel and place the possibility of forgiveness within reach.
3. Discuss how people often do hurtful things by accident
Whether kids forgive may also depend on their interpretations of others’ intentions. In a 2013 study, Katlin Peets and her colleagues found that kids tend to be less forgiving when they view their friends’ actions as intentionally hostile. On the other hand, kids tend to be more forgiving when they give their friends the benefit of the doubt. Young kids might turn to their parents when they are not sure whether a peer harmed them on purpose, and that moment could be an opportunity to help children consider forgiveness.
In a recent study of 260 children ages four to seven, Anouk van Dijk and her colleagues explored whether parents could play a role in kids’ “hostile attributional bias”—their tendency to interpret people’s ambiguous offenses as on purpose rather than by accident. The researchers videotaped parents reading picture books to their children at home. Ultimately, they found that the more often parents interpreted fictional characters’ actions as not being mean, the less likely kids were to see the people around them as hostile.
In everyday situations—reading picture books, watching movies, people-watching, or playing at the park—people’s intentions can be ambiguous. Parents may help kids by narrating possible explanations in which others aren’t being mean—for example, suggesting that the boy who took the one empty playground swing didn’t know their child was waiting for it. This may help counteract a kid’s tendency to see the world as a hostile place.
Forgiveness might not be the first choice that grownups and kids think about because being hurt by family, friends, or peers can feel overwhelming. But choosing forgiveness helps kids to feel empowered by releasing them from the heavy burden of anger and vengeance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean they have to hug or blow a kiss—unless they choose to.