Science has shown that forgiveness — intentionally letting go of angry feelings toward someone who has harmed you — is good for the health and well-being of the forgiver. If you’re raising siblings, you can probably guess at another benefit: harmony at home.
Forgiveness is critical for healing conflicts between siblings and nurturing a lifelong, trusting bond, says leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Robert Enright, educational psychologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. A study of more than 260 adult siblings offers evidence that the sibling relationship in childhood predicts their closeness as adults. Siblings that lack trust in each other in their early years will likely have a similar relationship with one another as adults; if their relationship was positive as kids, it will likely be strong in adulthood.
Besides helping them get along better, teaching kids how to forgive in the context of the sibling relationship prepares them for dealing with hurts they’ll inevitably encounter in life, says Enright. “At home, in a lower-stakes environment where kids are hurting each other, but not gravely, that’s the perfect training ground for how to forgive.”
We asked forgiveness researchers and experts for their advice on helping your kids let go of their hurts. Simple? Not at all. But luckily, it’s a process with lots of built-in rewards along the way.
Don’t force forgiveness
This is one area where ‘fake it till you make it’ doesn’t apply. You can’t force forgiveness by going through the motions. “Reducing forgiveness to a formula makes the process brittle and forced,” warns Enright. “It really is the call of the one offended to offer forgiveness when they’re ready.” So rather than insisting that one child apologize and the other accept the apology, acknowledge the hurt that happened. If the hurt party is suffering from lingering angry feelings, ask them if they’re ready to consider forgiving the offending party. Make sure they know it’s okay not to be ready — they can take all the time they need. And, during that time, if the problem resolves itself, says Enright, there’s no need to force forgiveness. “What the science shows is that forgiveness matters when the hurt isn’t going away. When it stays with the child and is uncomfortable for them, that’s when you need forgiveness.”
In the heat of the moment or when the stakes are high — while bumps are being iced or a beloved broken toy is being cleaned up — forgiveness is likely to be a tough sell. Enright says the best time to begin teaching forgiveness to kids is when they are not so hurt and angry, ideally over small conflicts. In this way, he says, kids will build up their “forgiveness muscle.” Eventually, when there is a more serious conflict, parents can ask, “Do you remember when you practiced forgiving each other before, and it worked? Do you think you can consider extending forgiveness now, in this more difficult situation?”
Teach forgiveness in a just context
One of the misconceptions about forgiveness, researchers say, is that it negates or excuses wrongdoing. Forgiveness isn’t saying the behavior is okay, and it isn’t a substitute for pursuing justice. When harm is caused, it is not sufficient to simply ask the offended child to forgive without addressing the offense. Minor hurts are par for the course. But bullying by siblings, while attracting less attention than bullying by classmates, is real — it can cause depression, anxiety, self-harm, and increased risk of psychopathology, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics. Other studies suggest this kind of behavior is common among siblings and vastly overlooked.
Address the hurt-causing behavior in a just way and make sure the injured party knows forgiveness isn’t saying what the other child did is fair or good. Rather, it’s saying, “I am deciding to let go of my hurt and angry feelings toward that person even though they hurt me.”
Make it unconditional
Both parties may not be on the same timeline when it comes to making peace, and that’s OK. A child can offer her sibling forgiveness even if the other remains angry and does not apologize, claims Enright. And no magic words are necessary. Forgiveness can be demonstrated through a kind word or action, a smile, or an offer to play.
Be a model forgiver
When parents express bitterness over hurts they endured months, years, or decades ago, they are teaching their kids to harbor similar long-term hatreds and enduring feuds, says Dr. Fred Luskin, senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.
Luskin believes it is crucially important for parents to model forgiveness toward each other in front of their kids, particularly in the case of divorce. Research indicates that kids notice when there’s a lack of forgiveness between spouses. If parents — whether or not they’re together — consistently express forgiveness toward each other in their words and actions, this example will be ingrained in their children.
Practice forgiveness in your relationship with your child
Likewise, points out Luskin, it is crucial that parents avoid modeling non-forgiveness when they are angry with their child. Parents who continue to scold children for behavior that occurred months or years earlier are demonstrating resentment; they are role modeling an inability to forgive. And it works both ways. In a heated moment or after a hard day, parents can hurt their children with harsh or hasty words and actions. Admitting you did something you regret and asking for forgiveness can be difficult and painful. Enright says that when a parent genuinely apologizes and asks their child for forgiveness, they’re offering them a gift and modeling an important lesson at the same time.
Call out examples of forgiveness in books and on screen
Stories are a great opportunity to show kids that conflicts always arise, but there are many ways a person can react to unfair treatment.
“Parents can read stories with their child about forgiveness, whether from religious sources or from more generally available sources. They can point out heroes of forgiveness and hold them up to the children as exemplars,” says forgiveness researcher Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Using television, advises Enright, is also an excellent, non-threatening way to teach kids how to forgive. If there is a conflict between siblings on a show, parents can pose questions such as, “What if each of them keeps anger in the heart over this? Will either be happy? What if the writer of the show changed the script so the two forgave each other — how would that make them feel? How would they interact with each other?” Children can learn, by watching scenarios of conflicts they aren’t involved in, that forgiveness leads to peaceful relationships and happiness.
Write a note
When angry feelings linger and simmer, taking up pen and paper may help ease them. In The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests asking kids to write a letter to the person who hurt them. Giving the completed letter to the offender is optional, she says; what’s important is that kids describe how they felt hurt at the time, and how they feel now, especially if there are still negative feelings. The letter can include what your child wishes the offender had done instead, and — if they feel it — end with an expression of forgiveness and understanding.
When you’re refereeing squabbles big and small, raising siblings who forgive each other might sound like a utopian dream. Take heart — it takes time. Worthington and Nathaniel Wade conducted a meta-analysis of research measuring the impact of forgiveness interventions and found that the amount of time spent trying to forgive is related to the degree of forgiveness that results.
Other studies show that we become more willing to forgive as we grow older, though kids show the least inclination to forgive between the ages of 11 and 14. If it seems like your brooding middle schoolers are destined not to get along, hang in there! Improved happiness might be right around the corner, for both you and your adolescent.
This is part of a new series on how the science of character development can help parents promote honesty, diligence, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, and curiosity in their children.