Forgiveness: Discussing it as a family

Forgiveness can be difficult to navigate. Learn about ideas for teaching it to children and discussing it as a family.

When is the last time you forgave someone for something they said or did? Did it take a long time or just a few minutes? Did it come with an apology? Did you forgive for the good of yourself or your family? Ever wonder what exactly forgiveness is? “Forgiveness: What is it and how do I do it?” discussed how to define forgiveness, the steps of forgiveness and some of the benefits associated with forgiveness. Forgiveness can be an important part of relationship growth between two individuals, but also within a group, such as a family.

In “Forgiveness in Families,” an article published by Brigham Young University, none of us “does” family perfectly. We sometimes say and do things that offend loved ones. All of us are guilty of “sins” of commission or omission toward those we care about. Forgiveness is an essential part of strong, healthy relationships.

Part of creating a strong and healthy family relationship is being able to discuss problems or situations that occur where forgiveness may be exercised, and for parents that can be a difficult conversation to navigate. As adults, it can be difficult to navigate the feelings and emotions surrounding forgiveness, so imagine how confusing it can be for children who may not be able to name those feelings and emotions they are experiencing. That’s why it’s important for adults to have some ideas for helping children through forgiveness. Jamie Perillo, LPC, writes in “How to Teach a Child Forgiveness” the following ideas.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. Children and many adults hesitate to forgive because they believe it means condoning the other person’s behaviors. There is also a misperception that forgiving means forgetting, which might bring on fear that it will happen again. In reality, to forgive is to say, “I did not like or appreciate your words or actions, but I am willing to let go because it does not help me to hold onto these feelings.”

In order to forgive someone, we need to look beyond the action and explore the person. For example, if your child is upset Susie called them a bad name during recess, help your child explore what is happening. Maybe Susie was on the outskirts of the hop-scotch game and wanted to play. Maybe Susie felt bad she was not invited to play or was jealous of those who were. Helping your child understand a possible trigger for the person’s actions encourages compassion and forgiveness.

Before asking your child to let go, forgive or excuse a behavior, it is first important to identify the feeling your child is experiencing. Are they angry, embarrassed or disappointed? Do they need to understand how the incident made them feel before they can forgive?

State the feeling before offering forgiveness. Instead of asking your child to immediately accept their sibling’s “I’m sorry,” have them state how they feel. For example, “Jenny, I am angry you borrowed my shirt without asking. Please ask me before taking my things next time. I forgive you.”

Once the feelings are understood, visualization can help your child let go of any harbored feelings. Hand your child a pretend balloon. Ask them to think about the feelings they stated—anger, sadness, embarrassment. Then, ask them to blow all of those feelings into the pretend balloon. Tell them an imaginary string ties the balloon to them. When they are ready to let go of the feelings, hand over pretend scissors to cut the string and release the feelings. Help your child imagine the balloon sailing high into the sky. When ready, imagine the balloon gently pops, spreading a dusting of love and compassion to both parties. Remind your child it might take more than once and they can practice the visualization as much as they would like.

Write a letter. This is a helpful exercise, particularly for teens. Practice writing a letter stating what caused the upset and how they feel about it. Then, have your child write a compassion statement or one of forgiveness to the offender and to themselves. End the exercise by having them rip the letter up into the garbage, signifying the release of forgiveness.

Be the example. Show your child how you forgive others.

Regardless of which suggestion you try, the key is to communicate. Having an open discussion about forgiveness and the feelings or emotions associated with a situation that may need forgiveness is vitally important to building a strong family unit. In “Forgiveness: The impacts of an apology,” learn about apologizing.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to Michigan State University Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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