Forgiveness Therapy Proposed as Antidote for Traumatic Childhood Experiences
Forgiveness Therapy and forgiveness interventions developed by Dr. Robert Enright are being embraced in a just-released study as promising tools for effectively dealing with what the study calls a “major public health crisis.”
Researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (Tulsa, OK) have teamed up with those at Stanford University (Stanford, CA) to study the life-long adverse impacts of Early Life Adversity (ELA). The study is titled “Is There an Ace Up Our Sleeve? A Review of Interventions and Strategies for Addressing Behavioral and Neurobiological Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Youth.” It was published just five days ago, March 13, 2020, in the empirical journal Adversity and Resilience Science.
ELA is the term for the negative experiences children may face or witness while growing up (sometimes also called Adverse Childhood Experiences—ACEs). These traumatic experiences include:
- emotional, physical, or sexual abuse;
- emotional or physical neglect;
- living in a household in which domestic violence occurs;
- growing up in household dealing with substance abuse or mental health problems;
- instability due to parental separation, divorce or incarceration;
- witnessing violence in the home; or,
- having a family member attempt suicide.
Any of those traumatic experiences can lead to what child development specialists call “toxic stress” if encountered by children without adequate adult support. Toxic stress can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems that can cause life-long complications.
In fact, psychologists say, adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases as well as impaired cognitive and social development. The report suggests that many adult diseases are, in fact, developmental disorders that begin early in life.
The new ELA publication describes and evaluates existing evidence-based interventions and their outcomes including Forgiveness Therapy. Three of Dr. Enright’s peer-reviewed empirical studies were examined and cited for achieving commendable outcomes compared to those of a control group:
- Female incest survivors (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Results: “significantly greater decrease in levels of depression and anxiety.”
- Women diagnosed with fibromyalgia who had experienced at least two ACEs in their childhood (Lee & Enright, 2014). Results: “increases in forgiveness toward their abuser, lower levels of state anger, and improvements in physical health related to their fibromyalgia symptoms.”
- Female Pakistani adolescents with histories of abuse (Rahman, Iftikhar, Kim & Enright, 2018). Results: Similar findings to the fibromyalgia study “suggesting that Forgiveness Therapy may uphold in a cross-cultural context.”
Those three intervention experiments by Dr. Enright and his research partners are the only Forgiveness Therapy examples cited in the 24-page ELA study that “have shown forgiveness therapy to be effective” in both physically and emotionally healthy ways. The ELA study also postulates that those interventions are effective because in Dr. Enright’s approach “the hypothesized mechanism behind forgiveness therapy involves cognitive restructuring of the abuser and events.”
Based on the evidence gather through this new ELA study, Forgiveness Therapy is one of the promising interventions for children who are experiencing toxic stress without appropriate support from parents or other concerned caregivers. That, they conclude, can help return a child’s stress response system back to normal while reducing negative mental and physical health outcomes later in life.
“Therefore, we conclude that they (Forgiveness Therapy interventions) are well-suited for and hold promise to exert immediate preventive and sustained changes in outcomes for maltreated youth.” – ELA study conclusion, March 13, 2020.
Why is this subject important? Why does it matter?
According to the World Health Organization, as many as 39% of children worldwide are estimated to experience one or more forms of early life adversity, placing a high economic burden on health-care systems—and society in general—through medical costs and lost productivity.
The mission of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) is to “develop novel therapeutics, cures and preventions to improve the well-being of persons who suffer from or are at risk for neuropsychiatric illness.” Dr. Namik Kirlic, the LIBR Principal Investigator for the ELA study, is a clinical psychologist who has devoted his professional life to studying ELA interventions and how to optimize their positive outcomes. Other team members for the ELA study include Zsofia Cohen (Dr. Kirlic’s Research Assistant) and Dr. Manpreet Singh, a psychiatrist and medical doctor at Stanford Health Care.
- Read the full, 24-page ELA study on Adverse Childhood Experiences.
- Learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences on the Psychology Today website.
- Find out how toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan at the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.
- Read about Early Childhood Development on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Early Childhood Development website.
“THE ANTI-BULLYING FORGIVENESS PROGRAM” — FREE FOR A LIMITED TIME
October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Initiated in 2006 by the PACER Center, it is the designated 31-day period each year when schools, organizations, and communities across the country–and in more and more countries around the world–join together in their battle to confront and stop bullying and cyberbullying.
As its contribution to that initiative, the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) is making its groundbreaking guide, The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program, available free of charge for a limited time. Developed by Dr. Robert Enright, this program is an invaluable tool for school counselors, social workers, teachers, and homeschooling parents.
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bulling may be verbal, social (hurting someone’s reputation or relationships), or physical. Cyberbullying is that which takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets–often called “online bullying.”
Bullying is a problem that can derail a child’s schooling, social life, and emotional well-being. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1 of every 5 students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school during the 2017 school year. While some adults have a tendency to ignore bullying and to write it off as a normal part of life that all kids go through, bullying is a real problem with serious consequences.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s website Stopbullying.gov, being bullied can lead to negative health and emotional issues, including:
- Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities the person used to enjoy. These issues may, and often do, persist into adulthood.
- Health complaints and mental health issues.
- Decreased academic achievement (both GPA and standardized test scores) and school participation. The bullied are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.
- Negative behavioral changes including substance abuse and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Countless anti-bullying techniques and programs have been developed over the past several years with administrators and teachers reporting varying levels of effectiveness. The IFI program is significantly different than most of those because it is not based on confrontation and/or disciplinary action. Instead, Dr. Enright’s approach focuses on the behavior of the one doing the bullying because “hurt people hurt people.”
That pithy observation is more than a clever phrase; it’s a sad truth. Dr. Enright’s scientifically-conducted research projects have repeatedly confirmed his contention that “hurt people hurt others because they themselves have been hurt. We’ve all been hurt in one way or another and those hurts cause us to become defensive and self-protective. We instinctively may lash out at others so that hurting becomes a vicious cycle full of pent-up anger.”
“Unless we eliminate the anger in the hearts of those who bully, we will not eliminate bullying.”
Dr. Robert Enright
Forgiveness can be a powerful way of reducing pent-up anger, Dr. Enright says about his strategy of incorporating forgiveness education into his anti-bullying approach.
“It is our contention that bullying starts from within, as anger, and comes out as displaced anger onto the victim,” according to Dr. Enright. “Forgiveness targets this anger and then reduces it, thus reducing or eliminating the displaced anger which comes out as bullying.”
The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program is for children in grades 4 (age 9) through grade 9 (age 14). It includes 8 lessons, each taking from 30 to 60 minutes. All of the material needed to teach these lessons is self-contained in this guide; there are no other textbooks or materials to purchase. The manual is now being offered free for a limited time and is available only in the electronic version. To order, email your request to the IFI Director at firstname.lastname@example.org. Indicate whether you would like the Standard or Christian version. ⊗
- Learn more about The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program developed by Dr. Robert Enright that employs Forgiveness Therapy principals.
- In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education released the first federal uniform definition of bullying.
- View the most-recent National Statistics on Bullying.
- Read a 10-page report, The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Search the current State Anti-Bullying Laws and Regulations for each of the 50 states.
- New research defines the Life-Long Effects of Childhood Bullying.
How is forgiveness involved in those affected by suicide?
The issue of forgiveness in the context of suicide is a delicate matter. This is the case because some people will say that suicide is not an unjust act and thus there is no need to forgive. On the other hand, others who have lost loved ones will come to the opposite conclusion and say it was unfair. So, we should not give a general statement here and say all should forgive those who have taken their own lives. Yet, when those who have lost loved ones in this way and do want to go forward with forgiveness, then people should be careful not to pass judgement on them and discourage this healing option. With colleagues, I have published journal articles on this issue:
Lee, E., Kim, S., & Enright, R.D. (2015). A case study of a survivor of suicide who lost all family members through parent-child collective suicide. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 36, 71-75. doi: 10.1027/0227-5910/a000286
Lee, E., Enright, R.D., & Kim, J.J. (2015). Forgiveness postvention with a survivor of suicide following a loved one’s suicide: A case study. Social Sciences, 4, 688-699. doi: 10.3390/socsci4030688
Even in Death, Coptic Christians Forgive
With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.
Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:
“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’
“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.
A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.
A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017.
But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love..
On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:
“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.” But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.
Learn more at:
• Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
• Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt”
• ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt
This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma. In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”
Inherited Stress from Our Historical Past
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.