Recent statistics illustrate an increase in elementary school children dying by suicide (Dillard, 2018). Three nine-year old children took their own lives this past year and bullying was related to all three deaths. Hate incidents at school are increasing at alarming rates although most incidents of hate are not reported. Along with increases in suicide and suicide ideation, anxiety and depression in youth are on the rise (Dillard, 2018).
Helping students develop empathy toward others is a key strategy in bullying prevention and intervention and according to a recent NY Times article (Brody, 2018), it is critical that we help kids develop empathy early in their lives. Social emotional learning (SEL) programs that include a focus on empathy and regulation of emotions are being recognized as an important part of the school curriculum for all students (Zakrzeski, 2014) and based on recent statistics, there is a need for more SEL programs in schools today.
According to Cook-Deegan (2018), social-emotional learning teaches the key attitudes and skills necessary for understanding and managing emotions, listening, feeling and showing empathy for others, and making thoughtful, responsible decisions. Research illustrates that including social-emotional learning (SEL) in the curriculum is good for both students and their teachers (Zakrzeski, 2014).
Forgiveness education, with its focus on recognizing and validating students’ anger as well as teaching students to express emotions in a healthy way, understand the perspective of others, recognize the humanity in all, and increase empathy and compassion, is one form of social-emotional learning that is currently being investigated by researchers (Enright., Knutson, Holter., Baskin, & Knutson, 2007; Freedman, 2018).
The forgiveness education research project described here was based on a quasi-experimental pre-test post-test design with two classes of 5th grade elementary school students attending a low-income school in a Midwestern community. There were approximately 25 ten and eleven-year old students in each class representing a diverse group of races and ethnicities.
The forgiveness education curriculum consisted of 10 weekly lessons of 30 minutes in duration with two days of pre-testing and two days of post-testing. Although all students received the forgiveness education, only the students who returned signed consent forms from their parents completed pre and post-tests (30 out of 50 students total – 16 students in one class and 14 students in another class).
The forgiveness education was taught by the researcher (and author of this blog) and occurred in each classroom on different days of the week. The same weekly lesson was taught in each classroom and the forgiveness education curriculum was based on Enright’s four-phase, 20-unit process model. Selected children’s literature was used to teach and illustrate forgiveness and related concepts to the students.
Certain principles from the chapter, “Helping Children and Adolescents Forgive”, in Enright’s (2001) book, Forgiveness is a Choice, guided the education. First, the idea that it is always the child’s choice to forgive was highlighted. Second, the curriculum was developed with the understanding that children may not understand forgiveness in the same was as adults. Third, the point that forgiving and reconciling are not the same thing was emphasized. Fourth, the rationale for this education and research project was based on the realization that if children are going to learn about forgiveness they need to be educated about it and know that it exists as an option as well as the knowledge that children learn more deeply when challenged and encouraged.
After the project, quantitative results illustrated that students increased significantly in their forgiveness toward a specific offender from pre-test to post-test. Students reported being hurt by friends, siblings, mothers and other students. Students also showed significant increases in their knowledge of forgiveness from pre-test to post-test.
Qualitative results illustrated that students both enjoyed and benefited from the forgiveness education curriculum. Specifically, when asked about what they learned and enjoyed about the forgiveness education, 14 students reported that the forgiveness education “helped them learn to forgive someone”.
Specific statements included, “I like forgiveness because in the future we will meet other people that we do not like but we still need to forgive them”; “Forgiveness has helped me forgive people I couldn’t forgive in a long time”, “It helps me forgive people when they make bad choices”; and “I liked learning because I have learned how to forgive someone like I am trying to forgive someone right now”.
Ten students reported that learning about forgiveness helped them know more about “being nice and showing kindness to others”. Specific comments included, “Even if people you know are mean to you, you can still be nice to them. Don’t be mean to others”; “It helped me be nicer to my brother and friends”; and “You could always give a person that is mean to you a second chance because maybe the person that is being mean is having a bad day or got in an argument with their best friend”.
Nine students also reported that they “learned more about bullying” from the forgiveness education. Specific comments included, “Some bullies get bullied so they are letting their anger out on somebody else”; “People are just hurt inside when they bully”; Even though somebody is being mean to you, you could still forgive them”; and “When you have empathy you want to know how they feel and then you can put your feet in their shoes, and if you are getting bullied you can turn them into a friend by knowing how they feel”.
Seven students reported that they “learned ways to calm down and let go of anger as a result of the forgiveness education. Six students stated that the forgiveness education taught them that “we are all the same underneath”. Another six students reported that they “learned about empathy”. Additional responses by more than one student included, “Forgiving is hard”; “Forgiveness is a choice”; “You don’t need an apology”; Forgiving takes time”; “Forgive but not forget”; and “Revenge is not part of forgiveness”.
This study illustrates the potential of forgiveness education to improve elementary school students’ psychological well-being and interpersonal relations as well as the importance of including forgiveness education in the school curriculum. Students who learn how to forgive and decrease their anger in healthy ways will be less likely to be involved in bullying and other violent acts (Freedman, 2018). This research is encouraging and needs to be replicated with additional populations of children and adolescents.
Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
- Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
- At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
- Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
- At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
- After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
- Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
- Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse. Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
“Introducing Forgiveness Counseling to the Schools”
If you do an electronic search for anti-bullying programs, you will see three prominent approaches, the 3 P’s:
- Peer mediation
- Persistent norms. (This is a “no-bully zone;” we do not tolerate bullying in this school)
What makes people so angry that they:
a) retain the anger for a long time, sometimes years;
b) find no solution to that anger; and,
c) give the never-say-die anger to others?
We find that unfair treatment from other people is the source of so much anger in this world (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Anger as a source of inner disruption in the form of anxiety, low-self esteem, and pessimism all too often goes unrecognized. After all, if a person with high anxiety comes to a mental health professional, it is natural to focus on the presenting symptom. Yet, our research and the clinical work connected to it suggest that toxic anger, the kind that is deep and long-lasting, often is at the heart of many psychological symptoms for those who have a history of being treated unfairly.
Forgiveness therapy, as an empirically-verified treatment, reduces and even eliminates the toxic anger (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). This is a paradoxical psychotherapy. As the client discussed the unfair behaviors coming from others, the treatment focus shifts from the client’s symptoms to an exploration of who the offending person is, what emotional wounds this person has, the vulnerabilities and doubts and fears that person brought to the painful interactions with the client.
As the client realizes that to forgive is not to excuse or forget or abandon the quest for justice or necessarily even reconcile with the other, then forgiveness therapy can proceed without distortion of what, exactly, it means to forgive. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to the client. It is the offering of a virtue that has been around for thousands of years across many philosophies and religions and worldviews. To forgive offers the client a way to eliminate resentment by offering goodness…and it works (see, for example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
When a student in school begins to aggress onto others, those who use the lens of forgiveness therapy start to ask these questions:
- Does the one showing the bullying behavior seem to be particularly angry?
- What is the source of this anger? Might it be unfair treatment from others in the past, perhaps at home or in school or in the peer group?
- Might this student be in pain, which emerged from the injustice, and might that pain now have turned to a toxic anger?
- Might this student be willing to examine who perpetrated the injustice and the subsequent hurt and ask, “Can I forgive this person (or persons) for what they did to me?”
School counselors now have a resource for taking this kind of therapy directly to those who bully (Enright, 2012). Rather than focus on the symptoms of aggression, disobedience to school expectations, or even the student’s own anger, the treatment shifts: Who hurt you? Is this person hurting and vulnerable and confused? Do you know what forgiveness is and is not? Would you be interested in trying to forgive the one who caused you so much pain? This kind of therapy can take up to 12 or more weeks, but that is the blink-of-an-eye relative to anger that can last for years.
As the student’s pain subsides by seeing the inherent worth in the one who was cruel and by fostering compassion toward that person (not because of what was done but instead because of whom the other is as a person), so too does the anger within the one who bullies start to fade, and this takes away the incentive to bully. The focus is not on the symptoms exclusively any more, nor is it on only creating school norms (which are all too easily ignored by those who bully when they are nurturing a rage inside).
To reduce bullying, we need to see the anger inside those who bully and have a plan to reduce it. Forgiveness therapy, as empirically shown, already has done its job. Now it is time to transport such therapy from the clinician’s office into the school setting for the good of those who bully and for the good of those who are the unwitting recipients of their pain.
Posted in Psychology Today December 17, 2016
- Enright, R.D. (2012). Anti-bullying forgiveness program: Reducing the fury within those who bully. Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Gambaro, M.E., Enright,R.D., Baskin, T.A., & Klatt, J. (2008). Can school-based forgiveness counseling improve conduct and academic achievement in academically at-risk adolescents? Journal of Research in Education, 18, 16-27.
- Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
- Park, J.H., Enright, R.D., Essex, M.J., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Klatt, J.S. (2013). Forgiveness intervention for female South Korean adolescent aggressive victims. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, 393-402.
- Reed, G. & Enright, R.D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 920-929.
Forgiveness within psychology is relatively new, having emerged as a research focus in the later 1980’s (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). Over the next three decades, a host of studies have emerged within the mental health professions showing that Forgiveness Therapy is beneficial for the client, for the one who forgives (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade et al., 2014). We have to be careful with these findings primarily because a false conclusion could emerge: Forgiveness is only for, or primarily for, the one who forgives; it has little to do with the one forgiven. This, actually, does not seem to be the case. A reflection on what forgiveness accomplishes, its purpose or goal, suggests at least 8 purposes to forgiving.
What does it mean to forgive? Although there may be different behaviors across the wide variety of cultures to express forgiveness, in its universal essence, forgiveness can be defined as a moral virtue, centered on goodness, that occurs in the context of being treated unfairly by others. The one who then chooses to forgive deliberately tries to eliminate resentment and to offer goodness of some kind toward the offending person, whether this is kindness, respect, generosity, or even love.
The one who forgives does not automatically go back into a dangerous relationship. The forgiver can forgive and then not reconcile. The forgiver does not excuse the unfair behavior but offers goodness in the face of the unfairness. The forgiver should not think in “either/or” terms, either forgiving and abandoning a quest for justice, or seeking justice alone without forgiving. The two moral virtues of forgiveness and justice can and should be applied together.
1. to become emotionally healthier. Forgiving can reduce unhealthy anger.
2. to repair relationships as it helps me to see the other’s worth.
3. to grow in character because it can help me to become a better person.
6. to motivate me to contribute to a better world as anger does not dominate.
7. to help me to more consistently live out my own philosophy of life or faith tradition if that worldview honors forgiveness.
8. to exercise goodness as an end in and of itself regardless of how others react to my offer of forgiving.
To forgive is to exercise goodness even toward those who are not good to you. Forgiveness is perhaps the most heroic of all of the moral virtues (such as justice, patience, and kindness, for example). I say it is heroic because which other moral virtue concerns the offer of goodness, through one’s own pain, toward the one who caused that pain? Do you see this—the heroic nature of forgiving—as you extend it to others?
- Baskin, T.W., & Enright, R. D. (2004). Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 79-90.
- Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.
- Wade, N.G., Hoyt, W.T., Kidwell, J.E.M., & Worthington, Jr., E.L. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82, 154-170.
Posted in Psychology Today Apr 16, 2018
I heard a talk recently in which– it was stated that Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice is equivalent to forgiving. The point is that forgiveness is not passive but stands up to evil in a merciful way. While there are some convergences between nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, I think that they are in essence different. Here are at least three ways in which they are not the same:
First, Ghandi’s approach, as well the approach of others who followed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is centered on a quest for justice. They want an unfair situation changed. Thus, nonviolent resistance in its essence is a justice strategy, as is the call for negotiation, dialogue, arms limitation, and other approaches of seeking fairness.
In contrast, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue centered in mercy and love. The primary goal of forgiveness is not the seeking of fairness, but instead to unconditionally love another or others, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this. To be fair to forgiveness, it is not the case that forgiveness abandons the quest for justice. Instead, people can and should bring justice alongside forgiving. When they do so, we must be clear that the offer of forgiving is different from the request for a fair solution.
Second, when a person or group practices nonviolent resistance, forgiveness likely would aid this strategy because it quells resentment which could spill over to hatred and actions of hatred which would destroy the nonviolent strategy. Forgiveness in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Justice-seeking is the primary issue. In contrast, justice-seeking is an aid to forgiving so that the forgiver does not become weak or even abused by others’ continual injustices. Justice in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Unconditional love toward an offending person is the primary issue.
Third, while the virtue of love may be at the center of non-violent resistance, and certainly was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen in his soaring volume, Strength to Love, it need not be at the center for all who practice the nonviolence. Perseverance might be the center for some, justice-seeking no matter what the consequence may be at the center for others, while loving one’s enemy may take center-stage for others. The action itself (nonviolence) and keeping one’s eye on the goal (social change) can lead to different virtues dominating a given person’s thinking and acting. In contrast, the virtue of love is always at the center of forgiving even if the forgiver never reaches this depth of understanding and practicing forgiving.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share the following in common:
First, each is unconditional in that, no matter what the other does to thwart the practice, the forgiver and the nonviolent resister stand firm in their decision to either forgive or resist. The others’ blows to the head did not deter Gandhi. The other’s refusal to apologize or make restitution does not deter the forgiver, who may or may not reconcile depending on the degree of unfairness and the extent of any abuse. The forgiver stands unconditionally in the offer of goodness toward those who are not being good to the forgiver.
Second, both have moral virtue at their center.
Third, each can effect social change as the one forgiven, for example, now sees the injustice, feels remorse, repents, and changes. Nonviolent resistance historically has been shown to effect such change as the consciences of the powerful can be deeply affected as they continue their unjust ways in the face of the others’ peace.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share commonalities, but they are not the same. We need clarity when engaging in each so that they move forward well and with a deep understanding about what the forgiver or resister actually is doing.