This article examines forgiveness in the context of a family environment, highlighting what forgiveness entails and the health benefits of practising forgiveness. It then offers dads tips on how to cultivate the quality of forgiveness for themselves and in their children.
The value of forgiveness
All of us have experienced being hurt by the actions or words of another. These wounds can leave us with prolonged feelings of anger, bitterness or even vengeance — but we can heal ourselves gradually by practising forgiveness.
Forgiveness can be understood as a deliberate decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge, regardless of whether the other person is regarded as deserving of forgiveness. The act that hurt you might always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can reduce its power to define you and help you shift focus to positive aspects of your life.
Forgiveness does not mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you and it does not trivialize the wrong deed. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness is an act of self-love that helps you move on with life.
Conversely, holding on to anger, resentment and other ill feelings breeds anxiety and depression in both children and adults. Unresolved pain can magnify as it accumulates, and wear down a person’s psyche. The earlier forgiveness is taught, the earlier you can prevent children from taking on the victim role, which in turn protects against mental disorders.
By embracing forgiveness, we can also cultivate other positive feelings of warmth, compassion, kindness, hope, gratitude and joy. Teaching your child to forgive is an essential life skill that will make it easier for them to navigate childhood all the way through adulthood.
Forgiveness is likely to lead to:
•Healthier relationships within and beyond the family
•Greater emotional and psychological well-being
•Less anxiety, stress and hostility
•Lower blood pressure
•Fewer symptoms of depression
•Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
Imparting this quality to children
An important role dads take on is to teach their children the realities of life. Life can sometimes bring devastating emotional pain: people hurt us, we hurt other people and we hurt ourselves. Dads, supported by moms, must teach children that hurt is part and parcel of life and that forgiveness is a key ingredient in all relationships. Here are some tips to empower your children to practise forgiveness.
1. Discuss the value of forgiveness and its role in your life.
Talk to your children about what forgiveness means and how practising it has helped you move on from difficult times. Also share with them your experiences of being on the receiving end of someone else’s forgiveness.
2. Differentiate between forgiving and forgetting.
Sometimes, we hesitate to forgive because we believe it means condoning the other person’s bad behaviour. We may also conflate forgiving for forgetting, which might induce fear that the negative incident will re-occur. However, to forgive is simply to acknowledge that you did not appreciate someone’s words or behaviour, but that you are willing to let it go for your own psychological well-being.
3. Broaden your children’s view of the world.
Help your children to abandon black-or-white and perfectionistic thinking. Teach them to be realistic and to expect occasional imperfections from the people in their life, which will make it easier for them to not sweat the small stuff.
4. Help your children tune into their feelings.
Your child needs to understand how the incident made them feel before they can learn to forgive. Find out if they are angry, embarrassed, or disappointed. Instead of asking your child to immediately accept someone’s apology, have them describe how they feel, sit with the emotions and process them first.
5. Let go of the need for closure.
When we have been hurt, we want people to be sorry for what they did. Sometimes, our fixation on receiving the desired apology leads to us putting our happiness on hold. Parents have to help children to understand these apologies do not always materialize, and that each day they are waiting to feel good until they get the apology is another day wasted on events that do not deserve their headspace.
6. Accept what cannot be changed.
The incidents that hurt us have already happened and no amount of anger or sadness can change that. Parents have to teach children to accept there is no way to reverse the damage, but that they can push forward and focus on the situations that they can indeed change.
7. Grateful thinking.
It is important to inculcate in children the expression of gratitude. Grateful thinking is not the same as thinking positively all the time or suppressing negative thoughts. Rather, it recognizes that life is a full spectrum of experiences, negative and positive. An attitude of gratitude is about appreciating and affirming the goodness in the world, as well as the love and support we receive from other people.
8. Forgiving is a process.
Dads should remind their children that pain will not heal overnight. Forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. Children need to be patient with themselves and not rush the process of forgiveness. Dads and moms should validate children’s emotions and let them know that it is okay to experience whatever it is they are feeling, before they can gain clarity about what action to take.
9. Put yourself in the offender’s shoes.
Consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. Ask your child to reflect on why the other person might have behaved in such a way. Perhaps your child would have reacted similarly if they faced the same situation. For example, if your child is upset their friend called them a name during a game, help your child explore the other person’s inner world. Helping your child understand possible triggers for the person’s actions cultivates compassion, empathy and forgiveness.
10. Write a letter.
Writing can be an extremely cathartic exercise, particularly for older children and teens. Ask your child to write a letter reflecting on the entire situation, stating exactly what caused the upset and how they feel about it. Then have your child write a statement of forgiveness or compassion to the offender and to themselves. End the exercise by having them shred the letter, signifying the release of forgiveness.
11. Make the experience meaningful.
Sometimes the most painful thing that happens to us ends up being a catalyst for our personal growth. It is easier to forgive someone when we explore the opportunities and possibilities that emerge from the experience. Ask your children to consider how the event has made them more resilient and wise.
12. Lead by example.
The importance of practising what you preach cannot be understated. Show your child how you forgive others and forgive them. Ask yourself honestly if you have you been forgiving with them or whether you harp on past or present misdeeds. If you have not succeeded in forgiving your children, commit yourself to learning principle of forgiveness first. Until you are able to truly practise forgiveness, parent-child communication will be compromised, and you will not be fully prepared to teach forgiveness to other family members.
Campbell, S. (2014). 5 ways parents can teach their kids to forgive. Huffington Post.
Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Mayo Clinic.
What is forgiveness? Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
Perillo, J. (2013). How to teach a child forgiveness. Psych Central.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.