The science we report in that article on forgiveness interventions for incest survivors shows in a statistically significant way that the research participants improved substantially in their psychological health, including being healed from psychological depression. As you are skeptical, most of the incest surviving participants in that study initially were skeptical, saying that they did not think it was possible for them to forgive. Nonetheless, once they voluntarily agreed to work on forgiveness with Dr. Freedman guiding them, they were able to complete the forgiveness process with excellent psychological results. In other words, initial skepticism is not an indication of a final decision or a final outcome. Skepticism can aid us in asking the difficult questions and waiting until we receive reasonable answers, but skepticism need not be a final answer, as we saw in this study.
Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this:Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.
For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks. His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:
“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”
I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this:Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently postedhere, and I had an ideain the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused. At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial. People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused? Forgive and go back into that situation.” No. This is not what forgiveness is at all. A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile. Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.
After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them. If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts. Will this aid their recovery? Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.
Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness. In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children. We reasoned this way: If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them.
We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast. Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks. The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18). These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries.
Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival. The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.” The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate. The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.
I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival. When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts. We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast. The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.
Forgiveness: it does not wither. It survives over time and grows. I think it does so because forgiveness gives life. Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.
The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.
Art Linkletter was a Canadian-born entertainer whose CBS radio and television show called House Party first aired shortly after the end of World War II and ran 5-days per week continuously for more than 25 years. The show’s best-remembered segment was a feature called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” in which Linkletter interviewed schoolchildren whose candid remarks provided some of his shows most precious, and hilarious, moments.
Like Linkletter, educational psychology professor Dr. Suzanne Freedman gathered lots of cute and insightful anecdotes when she recently taught two classes of 5th graders about inherent worth, moral love, kindness, respect, and generosity—the five basic components of forgiveness. Here are some of their unedited comments:
Forgiveness has made me more calm and given me more chances in life instead of death.
We are all the same when we take our skin off.
Don’t be mean to others. Even if people you know are mean to you, you can still be nice to them.
Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. When you forgive you can put it in the past.
I like forgiveness because it taught us how to not wait till it’s too late to forgive.
Forgiveness helped me be nicer to my brother and friends.
During the 27-year run of “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” Linkletter interviewed an estimated 23,000 children. The popularity of the segment led to a TV series with the same title, seven books (including Linkletter’s first book by the same title), spin-off TV shows in seven countries, and a number one record hit by country music superstar Tammy Wynette called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
On one of his more inspirational programs, Linkletter asked a four-year old if she knew how to pray. She immediately began saying the Our Father which included this nugget: “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
Here are more of the darndest things kids like that little girl told Dr. Freedman:
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.
Even though somebody is being mean to you, you could still forgive them.
It doesn’t matter if you are a different religion or have different colored eyes because everyone is the same person underneath.
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.
Revenge is not part of forgiveness.
Dr. Freedman, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, gathered those anecdotes while conducting a forgiveness education research project with two classes of 5th grade elementary school students attending a low-income school in a Midwestern community. She instructed each class for one 30-minute lesson each week for 10 weeks with two days of pre-testing and two days of post-testing. Each class was composed of 25 ten- and eleven-year-old students representing a diverse group of races and ethnicities.
Quantitative results from Dr. Freedman’s research project demonstrated that students increased significantly in their forgiveness toward a specific offender and showed significant increases in their knowledge of forgiveness from pre-test to post-test.
Qualitative results from the study illustrated that students both enjoyed and benefited from the forgiveness education curriculum. Specifically, when asked what they learned about forgiveness education, 14 students reported that the forgiveness education “helped them learn to forgive someone.” Other comments 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;” and; “It helps me forgive people when they make bad choices.”
“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,”according to Dr. Freedman.
“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. This research is encouraging and needs to be replicated with additional populations of children and adolescents.”
One could add that the study proves kids do indeed say the darndest things. . .♥
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.
Editor’s Note:Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertationwas a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology onForgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website“And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog,click here.
The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.
Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . . According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.
Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.
Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . .Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.
The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:
Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
Forgiveness takes time. . . .
Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .
Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.
I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.