Mar 30, 2022

Understanding Forgiveness in Children and Adolescents

A look at a theoretical approach and a methodological strategy as frameworks to understand forgiveness in children and adolescents.

By Sonia Carrillo Ávila, Ph.D

Discover Forgiveness is a joint initiative of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), supported by a Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. This council includes representatives from around the world with interdisciplinary expertise in the science of forgiveness and related fields. With the goal of sharing how forgiveness science is interwoven across cultures, contexts, geographies, and traditions, the council has carefully curated the Discover Forgiveness library to make forgiveness research accessible and actionable for people and institutions around the world. In this series of articles, council members offer insight into select pieces of research from the Discover Forgiveness collection.

“Forgiveness … is an effective healing intervention that restores emotional and spiritual health and promotes reconciliation in relationships”  (Worthington et al. 2010).

Interpersonal relationships are the basis of social groups. Sometimes individuals face transgressions in their relations with family members, peers, friends, and colleagues. Social offenses may alter a community's regular social functioning; however, the offenders' remorse and the victim's forgiveness can contribute to restoring and maintaining social dynamics after transgressions. Forgiveness has been conceptualized as a multidimensional construct that involves emotional, cognitive, and behavioral dimensions and different settings depending on whether it involves oneself, others, families, or communities. Forgiveness reduces avoiding contact with the offending person and seeking revenge directed at an offender. It can also be understood as a relationship-constructive transformation that involves affective empathy, attributional variables, and rumination (Enright et al., 1998; McCullough et al. 1998; Toussaint & Webb, 2005).

Different Types of Forgiveness

Different types of forgiveness are identified: Emotional forgiveness, which focuses on replacing negative emotions elicited by the transgression with positive emotions, and decision forgiveness which involves the victim's motivations and intentions toward the offender. Research studies on the implications of forgiveness for individuals' lives show that forgiveness is positively associated with mental and physical well-being, decreased stress and increased positive emotions, self-acceptance, and positive interpersonal relationships (Worthington et al., 2010). Given the importance of forgiveness for social cohesion and individuals' well-being, two key questions emerge in terms of its development: How is forgiveness studied in children and adolescents? What are the psychological processes involved in the development of forgiveness?

Positive Youth Development

A theoretical approach, Positive Youth Developmental (PYD), and a methodological strategy,  Participatory Action Research (PAR), are relevant frameworks to understand forgiveness in children and adolescents and to visualize new venues to conduct research on forgiveness during early ages.

Forgiveness is a character strength that promotes children and adolescents' well-being. The Positive Youth Developmental approach (PYD) proposed by Lerner (2009) opposes the deficit model under which early stages of life are characterized by problems, conflicts, and a lack of essential outcomes and skills. Instead, this perspective conceives young people's development based on recognizing and promoting strengths and positive competencies that contribute to their optimal development and well-being; under this approach, forgiveness is a strength to be investigated and promoted in youths' lives.

Children are exposed to forgiveness from an early age; within the family interactions and the socialization process in and outside the family, children learn words and experience situations related to forgiveness. From an early age, adults teach them the importance of forgiving and different ways in which they can practice forgiveness in the family and school settings. Forgiveness in children and adolescents involves three specific skills (Garthe & Guz, 2020):

  1. Abilities to regulate emotions, cognitions, and behaviors
  2. Coping skills
  3. Socialization abilities to interact with others in diverse situations

Research on young children shows that forgiveness promotes mental health and well-being. Practicing forgiveness is associated with a decrease in violent interpersonal behavior. It is also positively linked to better physical and psychological health, positive conflict resolution skills, social support and positive interpersonal relationships. Recent studies showed that forgiveness is linked to the development of basic socio-cognitive skills in children (e.g., understanding what others are thinking or feeling). For example, older children (7 to 11 years) showed a stronger tendency to forgive and apologize than their younger counterparts (4 and 5-year-olds). Forgiveness is also key to restoring interpersonal relations and empathy in groups of young children by encouraging interactions and cooperation; victims who display forgiveness are positively evaluated by their peers and chosen as activities partners more than those who do not forgive (Díaz-Figueroa & Prieto-Ursúa, 2020; Oostenbroek & Vaish, 2019).

Participatory Action Research

Studying children's forgiveness development is crucial to understanding social conflict and harmony. Traditionally, the study of many psychological processes in children is mainly based on self-reported measures answered by children or is being explored through adults' views. Parents and teachers are commonly asked to provide their perceptions about children's needs, motivations, difficulties, and competences. However, some authors have recently questioned the role children play in this type of research and call for child-centered methodological strategies that listen and recognize youths as reliable sources of information and active participants in the research process. They proposed an approach called Participatory Action Research (PAR) that includes children's voices in the research process enriching our understanding of their psychological world. Developmental research on forgiveness will benefit from inclusive, participatory, action-focused research with children; research with and by children will enrich our understanding of forgiveness and other aspects of their psychological world (Alderson, 2001; Christensen & James, 2008).

Studying children's forgiveness development is crucial to understanding social conflict and harmony. 


Forgiveness as a Character Strength Beyond Individual Interactions

Social interaction and conflict are essential aspects of the human experience. When we face social transgressions and offenses, interpersonal interactions might be affected to the point of negatively extending to the community. Forgiving others for their offenses seem to play an important role in maintaining the social fabric; thus, forgiveness is a character strength of importance beyond the personal interactions of individuals and becomes a valuable strength for the community. Children have the capacities for experiencing and learning forgiveness. It is the job of developmental scientists to understand how this character strength develops. It is the job of caregivers and teachers to offer learning opportunities to make forgiveness a common characteristic of youngsters. It is the job of policymakers to provide the conditions in educational and other social settings to promote and enhance the development of this critical trait for social interactions.

Many of the researchers noted in this article also have papers featured at, which showcases the science of forgiveness in the context of these four questions: What is forgiveness?; How does forgiveness happen?; What can forgiveness do?; and How is forgiveness measured? Within these categories, you'll find work from Robert D. Enright, Suzanne Freedman, Rachel C. Garthe, Joanna North, Júlio RiqueLoren L. Toussaint, and Everett L. Worthington, Jr., as well as many more.

Sonia Carrillo Ávila, Ph.D is a psychologist from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology at the Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. She co-directs a research group that focuses on significant-close relationships across the life span. In recent years, she has been studying character strengths and well-being in children and adolescents, and leads a TWCF-funded project to develop a gratitude curriculum for elementary schools in Bogotá.

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Alderson, P. (2001). Research by children. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4(2), 139-153. 

Christensen, P., & James, A. (Eds.). (2008). Research with children: Perspectives and practices (2 nd ed.). Routledge 

Garthe, R. C., & Guz, S. ( ).The Development of Forgiving in Children, Adolescents, and Emerging Adults. In E. Worthington Jr., & Wade, N. (Eds.), Handbook of forgiveness (2nd ed.) (pp.  87- 96). Routledge

Enright, R., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. In R. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness (pp. 46–62). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

Díaz-Figueroa, P., & Prieto-Ursúa, M. (2020). El desarrollo del perdón en niños.  Revista Clínica Contemporánea, 11, e2, 1-15

Lerner, R. M. (2009). The positive youth development perspective: theoretical and empirical bases of a strengths-based approach to adolescent development In S. J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp. 149–163). Oxford University Press 

McCullough, M. E., Rachal, K. C., Sandage, S. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Brown, S. W., & Hight, T. L. (1998). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships: II. Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(6), 1586–1603. DOI:

Oostenbroek, J., & Vaish, A.  (2019). The benefits of forgiving: Young children respond positively to those who forgive. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148 (11), 1914-1924

Toussaint, L., & Webb, J. R. (2005). Theoretical and Empirical Connections Between Forgiveness, Mental Health, and Well-Being. In E. L. Worthington Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 349-362). Routledge.

Worthington Jr, E. L., Jennings, D. J., & Diblasio, F. A. (2010). Interventions to promote forgiveness in couple and family context: Conceptualization, review, and analysis. Journal of Psychology and Theology38(4), 231-245