Ample research has shown that depression is a significant and growing problem for today’s adolescents. Depression can impair a teenager’s cognitive functioning (i.e., thinking, reasoning, etc.), relationships with parents and peers, academic performance, and for cases of severe depression may even result in suicide attempts. Moreover, adolescent depression is also associated with poor outcomes in adulthood such as low-income levels, low educational aspirations, and high substance use.
Now, two international education and forgiveness specialists believe they may have uncovered one of the keys to reducing adolescent depression and major depressive disorder (MDD). According to the researchers, their first-of-its-kind study has shown that promoting social skills such as responsibility and self-control could be “particularly salient for the prevention of adolescent depression.”
The new study, A Longitudinal Analysis of Social Skills and Adolescent Depression: A Multivariate Latent Growth Approach, was published in the current issue of the International Journal of Psychological Research (the official publication of the Faculty of Psychology at San Buenaventura University in Medellin, Colombia.). The study authors included Dr. Zhuojun Yao, an educational psychologist and lecturer at Soochow (Suzhou) University in Suzhou, China, and Dr. Robert Enright, of our International Forgiveness Institute.
BACKGROUND: Adolescence is a period of increased vulnerability to depression because of complex changes in biology, cognition, and social domains. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 3.5 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States (14.4% of the total) had at least one Major Depressive Episode (MDE), and 70% of these adolescents had an MDE with severe impairment in 2018.
Most clinical depression among children starts in middle adolescence (ages 15-18) and is much higher for those in that age group than for those in early adolescence (ages 13-15). Although there are substantial empirical research studies demonstrating the association between social skills and adolescent depression, the authors of this study could not locate a single scientific work investigating how the change in social skills influences the change in depression from early to middle adolescence.
THE STUDY: To address this gap in fundamental knowledge, the researchers in this study questioned how changes in social skills (cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and self-control) influence changes in depression from early to middle adolescence. Using internationally respected measurement tools, the authors measured both social skills and depression in 1,064 participants (half boys, half girls). Those participants were drawn from a separate longevity study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD) that ran from 1991 through 2008.
STUDY RESULTS: According to the study authors, adolescents who had more increase in responsibility and self-control from 5th grade to 9th grade tended to experience a slower increase in depression; while adolescents who had more reduction in cooperation and assertion from 5th grade to 9th grade tended to experience a faster increase in depression. Overall, the results suggest that responsibility in early adolescence may decrease adolescent depression by protecting adolescents from risk-taking and problematic behaviors in middle adolescence.
“When used in association with other therapeutic modalities. . .the psychotherapeutic
use of forgiveness can resolve the anger associated with depressive disorders.”
Dr. Robert Enright
IMPLICATIONS FOR FORGIVENESS: Interventions to reduce adolescent depression are becoming more important with each passing day because, as outlined above, adolescent depression also is associated with poor outcomes in adulthood. A 2009 study revealed that at least 27 million Americans take antidepressants, nearly double the number (13.3 million) who did so in the mid-1990s (Olfson & Marcus, 2009). Less understood is the fact that approximately 80% of adult mental disorders begin during childhood and adolescence (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003) and typically include an intense emotional state of anger.
“Anger begins in early childhood and later extends to relationships with significant others, particularly those one wants to trust,” Dr. Enright writes in Forgiveness Therapy, the widely-heralded forgiveness intervention manual he authored with psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons. “Anger from childhood hurts and disappointments with parents and others can be unresolved and later misdirected unconsciously at others. [page 108]
“Once anger develops, three options are available for addressing this powerful and complex emotion: denial, expression (active or passive-aggressive), and forgiveness. If the anger is resolved through a forgiveness process, it can facilitate the healing of the associated sadness, depression and the tendency to ruminate over past hurts.” [page 108]
According to Dr. Enright, “This study provides yet another compelling reason why we need Forgiveness Education in our schools NOW.”
This study on adolescent depression is just one of the many research projects undertaken by Drs. Zhuojun Yao and Robert Enright. Others include:
- The influence of moral stories on kindergarteners’ sharing behavior
- The role of consequences of moral action in maximizing moral elevation
- Belief in altruistic human nature and prosocial behavior: a serial mediation analysis
- The Link Between Social Interaction with Adults and Adolescent Conflict Coping Strategy in School Context
In the first ever true experimental study of its kind, researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of an educational forgiveness intervention on improving the mental health of parents grieving the loss of a child. The research was conceptualized and done by Lucia Záhorcová, a psychologist at Trnava University in Slovakia. The forgiveness intervention was developed by Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, who also directed the study in the country that was once part of Czechoslovakia.
The pilot study results showed that participants in the experimental group (who received the forgiveness intervention), compared to those in the control group, achieved:
- Statistically greater improvement in forgiveness towards others and in self-forgiveness in both the post-test and the follow-up test conducted four months after the end of the intervention;
- A greater decrease in depression in both the post-test and follow-up test;
- A greater decrease in anxiety and anger in the post-test; and,
- Higher improvement in the post-traumatic growth in the follow-up test.
“The death of a child is a one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences a parent can endure,” according to Dr. Enright. “That’s why we wanted to determine if forgiveness could be a positive influence in reducing a parent’s depression, anxiety and anger just as it has been demonstrated in our studies with other clinical populations like incest survivors, emotionally-abused women, and post-abortion men.”
Dr. Enright said the study in Slovakia was the first ever forgiveness intervention with grieving parents in which a control group was used. It included 21 parents randomly assigned to the experimental group (in which the educational forgiveness intervention occurred) and 21 to the control group (in which a psycho-education grief intervention with a humanistic approach took place). All the parents were grieving the loss of a child older than three years of age.
“The study demonstrated that the forgiveness intervention definitely resulted in mental health improvements for parents grieving the loss of a child,” Dr. Enright stated. “The ability to forgive another person, perhaps even the murderer of their child, can positively influence the mental health of a bereaved parent.”
The Effectiveness of a Forgiveness Intervention on Mental Health in Bereaved Parents – a Pilot Study, was published on June 21, 2021, in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying. In addition to Dr. Enright (Dept. of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison) the study researchers included Lucia Záhorcová and Peter Halama, both in the Dept. of Psychology at Trnava University in Trnava, Slovakia. The three also teamed up for a 2019 study of 84 grieving parents called Forgiveness as a Factor of Adjustment in Bereaved Parents.
You who advocate for Forgiveness Therapy or forgiveness education with students ask way too much of forgivers. You ask them to bear the burden of their own healing and that is not fair. They already have been hurt so why ask them now to struggle after forgiveness? Two burdens are theirs: the original offense and now Forgiveness Therapy.
Thank you for the critique of forgiveness interventions. Your argument has an error embedded within it. It is not at all an added and unnecessary burden to help a person, whose heart is broken, to forgive. Take a physical analogy to make the point clear. Suppose James pushes Jeremy to the ground, dislocating his shoulder. Is it unwise now to ask Jeremy to enter into a rehabilitation process to repair the shoulder? Is it an added burden we should never ask because he is hurting? It would seem that the unfairness lies, not in the encouraging of medical treatment, but the reverse—discouraging it because it will be rigorous and painful. Is it not the same with Forgiveness Therapy for those who choose it? The heart is broken, yes, because of the original unfairness. If the person chooses rehab of the heart—Forgiveness Therapy—isn’t this repair good even though rigorous and painful? The misconception might keep people from rehab of the heart and so it needs to be challenged.
[This kind of question and answer appeared in my Psychology Today blog. I repost the question and answer here because this issue continues to come up.]
I recently read an article in which the author started the essay by defining forgiving as the release of deep anger.
In fact, there is a consensus building that forgiveness amounts to getting rid of a negative emotion such as anger and resentment. I did a Google search using only the word “forgiveness.” On the first two pages, I found the following definitions of what the authors reported forgiveness to be:
Forgiveness (supposedly) is:
- letting go of resentment and thoughts of revenge;
- the release of resentment or anger;
- a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who acted unjustly;
- letting go of anger;
- letting go of negative feelings such as vengefulness.
I think you get the idea. The consensus is that forgiveness focuses on getting rid of persistent and deep anger. Synonyms for this are resentment and vengefulness. Readers not deeply familiar with the philosophy of forgiveness may simply accept this as true. Yet, this attempted and consensual definition cannot possibly be true for the following reasons:
- A person can reduce resentment and still dismiss the other person as not worth one’s time;
- Reducing resentment itself is not a moral virtue. This might happen because the “forgiver” wants to be happy and so there is no goodness toward the other, which is part of the definition of a moral virtue;
- There is no specific difference between forgiveness and tolerance. I can get rid of resentment by trying to tolerate the other. My putting up with the other as a person is not a moral virtue;
- Forgiveness, if we take these definitions seriously, is devoid of love. It is not that one has to resist love. Yet, one can be completely unaware of love as the essence of forgiveness while holding to the consensual definition.
- A central goal of forgiveness is lost. Off the radar by the consensual definition is the motivation to assist the other to grow as a person. After all, why even bother with the other if I can finally rid myself of annoying resentment.
The statement “forgiveness is ridding the self of resentment or vengefulness” is reductionistic and therefore potentially dangerous. It is dangerous in a philosophical and a psychological sense. The philosophical danger is in never going deeply enough to understand the beauty of forgiveness in its essence as a moral virtue of at least trying to offer love to those who did not love you. The psychological danger is that Forgiveness Therapy will be incomplete as the client keeps the focus on the self, trying to rid the self of negatives. Yet, the paradox of Forgiveness Therapy is the stepping outside of the self, to reach out to the other, and in this giving is psychological healing for the client. It is time to challenge the consensus.
The man Time magazine has called “the forgiveness trailblazer” is blazing forward in a new direction by offering to social science and moral development researchers around the world the accumulation of forgiveness research tools he has developed over the past 35 years. And he is giving them away at no cost and with no strings attached.
Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), announced today that he is now providing his highly regarded scientific research tools absolutely free to any forgiveness researcher who requests them.
“This initiative is designed to help expand and broaden the growing collection of crucial forgiveness knowledge,” Dr. Enright says. “This area of moral development has already had significant impacts in the realms of education, medical treatment, and emotional therapy, so why not try to expand on that?”
Often introduced as “Dr. Forgiveness” because of his 35-year academic commitment to researching and implementing forgiveness programs, Dr. Enright is acknowledged as the unquestioned pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness. The research tools he and his associates have developed have become highly coveted tools because of his meticulous validation of the scientific procedures he employs.
All of Dr. Enright’s research is done in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is a Professor of Educational Psychology. You can access his peer-reviewed empirical studies, research abstracts, and published studies at Forgiveness Research.
In addition to sharing his research results, Dr. Enright is now making available his user-validated forgiveness research tools at no cost. Those tools include:
- The Enright Forgiveness Inventory-30 (EFI-30) – This tool is a shorter version of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory for Adults that has become the interpersonal forgiveness measure of choice for research professionals in the U.S. and abroad since its development in 1995. The EFI-30 reduces the number of items from 60 to 30 for the purpose of a more practical assessment of this construct. Data from the United States were used in the creation of the new measure and applied to seven nations: Austria, Brazil, Israel, Korea, Norway, Pakistan, and Taiwan to develop its psychometric validation.
- The Enright Self-Forgiveness Inventory (ESFI) – This measure is based on the conceptualization of forgiveness as a moral virtue. The ESFI is a 30-item scale featuring six subscales with five items each. Five additional items at the end of the scale allow for measurement of pseudo self-forgiveness (PSF). Although several competing self-forgiveness measures exist, Dr. Enright’s is the only one that captures the idea that self-forgiveness is a moral virtue that includes behavior toward the self.
- The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory (EGFI) – Newly validated and published earlier this year, the EGFI has 56 items across seven subscales with each subscale having eight items. Those subscales measure a group’s motivation and values regarding forgiveness, peace, and friendliness toward the other group. Like the ESFI, it also has a PSF component and has dramatic implications for its ability to enhance peace efforts in the world.
To develop and validate the EGFI, Dr. Enright worked with a team of 16 international researchers who collected data from 595 study participants in three different geographic and cultural settings of the world—China and Taiwan, Slovenia, and the US. The study team’s findings documented that this new measure has strong internal consistency as well as convergent and discriminant validity.
- The Enright Forgiveness Inventory for Children (EFI-C) – The EFI-C is an objective measure of the degree to which a child forgives another who has hurt him or her deeply and unfairly. It is a 30-item scale similar to the 60-item adult version and is presented orally to very young children and in writing to those who can read well. Thanks to a researcher in Pakistan, the EFI-C is now available in the Urdu language—the native language of an estimated 230 million people, primarily in South Asia.
Dr. Enright is the author or editor of seven books. He published the first social scientific journal article on person-to-person forgiveness and the first cross-cultural studies of interpersonal forgiveness. He also pioneered scientific studies of forgiveness therapy and developed an early intervention to promote forgiveness–the 20-step Process Model of Forgiving.
By publicly sharing all his research studies and results in more than 100 publications over the years, Dr. Enright has earned recognition as being in the forefront of the science of forgiveness. The Los Angeles Times described Dr. Enright as “the guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness.” The Christian Science Monitor called him “the father of forgiveness research.”
Learn more about Dr. Enright’s free tools on the Forgiveness Research Tools page.