When a friend does something less-than-kind, it’s understandable that children feel hurt, angry, or resentful. Maybe the friend said something unkind or broke something precious, embarrassed them, excluded them, or told their secrets.
But then what happens?
In my practice, a mom once suggested to her son, “Why don’t you get together with the kid down the road?”
He responded by saying, “No, because two years ago, when we were playing basketball, he never passed the ball.”
It’s easy for kids to get caught up, stewing over what a friend did… why it was so bad… how it was so unfair and undeserved… what the friend should have done instead… On top of their hurt or resentment, there’s a satisfyingly righteous superiority that comes from dwelling on how wrong the friend was!
Children may be tempted to get even with a friend who’s done them wrong, by doing something worse or telling everyone how terrible the friend is, but trying to get revenge only escalates the conflict.
Sometimes it’s important for kids to speak up. They can explain to a friend, “I don’t like that!” and ask for what they want.
Sometimes they vow never to trust the friend again. They abruptly sever the relationship, insisting, “You’re not my friend anymore!”
Research on forgiveness in children
Reine C. van der Wal and colleagues (van der Wal, Karremans, & Cillessen, 2016, 2017) define forgiveness as the process of reigning in the automatic negative thoughts, feelings, and impulses that spring up when someone upsets us and instead treating that person with kindness. They argue that forgiveness is a necessary skill for maintaining long-term friendships.
Van der Wall and colleagues (2016) asked 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in The Netherlands to recall “something hurtful one of your classmates did to you,” specifying that the classmate was either a friend or not a friend.
Children were more likely to forgive a friend than someone who wasn’t a friend—probably because they want to preserve the friendship but may not care about getting along with someone who isn’t a friend. . Children also reported feeling happier and more accepting of themselves when they forgave a friend. However, this study doesn’t rule out the possibility that happier kids find it easier to forgive friends, that forgiveness might color whom they consider a friend, or that some other factor, such as having an agreeable disposition might underlie friendship, forgiveness, and well-being.
It’s often easier for children to forgive a friend than someone they don’t know or already dislike, because they’re more likely to assume that the friend wasn’t deliberately trying to be mean. However, when the offense feels like a betrayal, it may be especially difficult to forgive a friend. Children may feel caught in the tension between wanting to keep the friend but feeling unable to let go of resentment about a serious offense.
Parents’ role in teaching forgiveness
Parents can play an important role in teaching children about forgiveness. Children watch how important adults in their lives respond when someone does something unkind. Do they let it go or hold a grudge? Do they complain to others or speak directly to the person involved? How long does it take them to get over being mad or hurt? How do they get over it?
Sometimes parents instruct children directly about how to respond to friends’ mistakes. Depending on the situation and the family values, parents may promote responses that range from “Don’t let him walk all over you!” to “He didn’t mean it” or “Everyone makes mistakes.”
There’s a delicate balance that children need to strike when it comes to forgiveness. On the one hand, passively tolerating and excusing on-going mean behavior definitely isn’t healthy. Research with adults (Luchies et al 2010) shows that, long term, repeatedly forgiving people who don’t mend their ways eats away at self-respect.
On the other hand, kids need to understand that no one is perfect, so generously and compassionately forgiving a well-meaning or remorseful friend is a caring thing to do. When parents help children imagine the other person’s perspective, this can help children clarify how they want to move forward.
Some children collect grievances like beads on a string, remembering every hurt or slight that anyone has done to them. Like the boy in my practice, they may stew over slights long after the person who did them have forgotten them. The weight of remembered offenses can add up quickly, leading to a sense that the world is a harsh place and no one is trustworthy.
Here are some guidelines that might help your child figure out when it’s time to let go of resentment and forgive someone. (Reprinted with permission from: Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends, by Eileen Kennedy-Moore & Christine McLaughlin.)
- If it only happened one time, and it probably won’t happen again, let it go.
- If your friend didn’t do it on purpose, let it go.
- If it wasn’t that bad, let it go.
- If your friend is really sorry, let it go.
- If it was just a mistake, and the friend is usually kind, let it go.
- If it happened more than a month ago, definitely let it go.
Holding onto resentment is emotionally costly. Sometimes, forgiveness is the right thing to do, not because the other person deserves it, but because we deserve not to be weighed down with bitterness.
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Kennedy-Moore, E. & McLaughlin, C. (2017). Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. Beyond Words / Simon & Schuster.
Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., McNulty, J. K., & Kumashiro, M. (2010). The doormat effect: when forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 734-749.
Van der Wal, R. C., Karremans, J. C., & Cillessen, A. H. (2016). Interpersonal forgiveness and psychological well-being in late childhood. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 62(1), 1-21.
Van der Wal, R. C., Karremans, J. C., & Cillessen, A. H. (2017). Causes and consequences of children’s forgiveness. Child Development Perspectives, 11(2), 97-101.