Regardless of age, we have all experienced being hurt by our siblings, co-workers, strangers and even our closest friends. When this happens, we often do one of two things – hold a grudge and attempt to get revenge or move on and forgive them, no matter how hard it may be.
Expert Everett Worthington from Virginia Commonwealth University has spent his career studying forgiveness. He explains that this difficult decision requires us to ignore our initial instinct to “get even” and instead try to understand the other person’s reasoning behind their hurtful behavior. Once we make the decision to abandon the negative emotions we feel toward that person and replace them with positive ones, forgiveness will happen over time.
Health Benefits of Forgiveness
Researchers have identified that forgiveness is associated with several benefits including better physical and mental health (e.g., low blood pressure, psychological well-being), reduced anger, and maintenance of close relationships. On the other hand, holding grudges and seeking revenge is associated with several health concerns including depression, anxiety, poor physical health and lower self-esteem.
The benefits of forgiveness have not only been found in adults, but also in children and adolescents as well. The ability to forgive someone is an essential component to maintaining relationships with others and is especially important during development. Peer relationships are crucial for children’s social, emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing –BUT as we all know from experience, relationships are not always easy to manage, especially in the face of conflict.
Teaching this Virtue to Young People
So how can we teach children about the virtue of forgiveness?
One very important way is through parenting. As research has consistently shown, children often imitate their parents’ behaviors, making parents a direct model of behavior for their children. One study in particular demonstrated how parents’ forgiving tendencies were associated with their child’s forgiving tendencies and the results were maintained up to one year later. Outside of modelling forgiving behavior, parents can also explicitly teach their children about forgiveness and how they should respond when faced with conflict or when someone has hurt them.
However, despite parents’ best efforts to instill appropriate values in their children, they are often in competition with the media. In today’s society, media is a very powerful tool that can manipulate the beliefs, norms, perceptions, values and behaviors of the society at large; if something is accepted by the media, it is often accepted by society as well. But if used appropriately, media can be an important educational tool. Therefore, what children see in the media they consume (i.e., YouTube, television, apps) will have an enormous impact on their development, and sometimes even more so than parents!
In this sense, how characters and stories are represented in the media matters, a lot. Often times, representation of characters is talked about in terms of gender or race. However, what we must not forget is that representation can also be about a character’s internal qualities, morals, and beliefs; embodying forgiveness is no exception. Because of the many benefits that accompany the act of forgiving (and being forgiven), it is crucial that we create characters in the media who display the virtue of forgiveness and can therefore teach children and adolescents how to exercise this in their own lives.
How to best show forgiveness through Media:
Show characters who not only forgive others who hurt them, but also show characters who make mistakes (because they are ‘human’), and take responsibility for their actions, including asking for forgiveness.
Portray characters who forgive others (or ask for forgiveness) as brave and courageous because forgiveness is often misconstrued to be a sign of weakness.
Display characters going through the emotions people experience when they are hurt by a close friend and show how they deal with these emotions.
This strategy has been shown to be effective in previous research that found children are capable of learning how to manage their emotions by using an app in which a familiar media character taught children how to recognize and understand emotions (see CSS blog by Eric Rasmussen—a CSS collaborator)
Portray the importance of friendships and the obstacles that come with them. How are conflicts between friends resolved? What happens if they are not resolved? What happens if they are resolved?
Demonstrate a character forgiving themselves after they’ve done something to hurt a loved one.
Adrianna Ruggiero is a first-year Ph.D student in the Psychological Science stream at Ryerson University and the Senior Research Coordinator for the Center for Scholars and Storytellers. Her current research mainly focuses on children’s selective social learning and selective trust. She is hoping to expand this area and explore how children learn from technology and media!
Early Childhood Cognition Lab (https://psychlabs.ryerson.ca/ecclab/), Ryerson University
This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.