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Adolescence and Forgiveness

By the end of adolescence, most parents and teenagers have needed forgiveness

Consider several forms of letting go, all three of which can be hard to accomplish.

First, there is Acceptance, which has to do with letting go Unrealistic Expectations and creating a new set that fits how reality has changed. So parents adjust their expectations of their daughter or son to fit the adolescent who is no longer acting like an adoring, close, and compliant little child anymore.

Second there is Grief, which has to do with letting go Painful Loss through mourning what is sorely missed. So parents, for whom their parents were a bulwark of love, must go on without this active presence, storing in grateful memory the contributions that were given.

And third, there is Forgiveness which has to do with letting go of Grievance, perhaps the most complex of the letting go’s. It’s difficult for child and parent to journey through adolescence together without experiencing three needs for forgiveness along the way, each of which can be hard to give and get – forgiveness of others, forgiveness from others, and forgiveness of self.


The hard statement is: “I’ll never forgive you!” Now Resentment declares: “I will suffer lasting hurt from what you've done.” To resolve never to forgive is to sentence one’s self to a life of grievance. The first purpose of forgiveness is not to relieve the responsible person from blame, but to free the injured party from carrying ongoing hurt and anger. The old AA saying comes to mind: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

So for example, a teenage only child who has had her single parent mother to herself for many years, is highly resistant to her new stepfather (who she liked before the remarriage as just a fun family friend.) Now she is furious with her mother for inviting this rival for the woman’s attention into their home. Strong willed and stubborn, the adolescent is determined not to like this father figure in her life and to never forgive her mother for letting him in. Although the mother is suffering at her unforgiving daughter’s hands, that suffering pales in comparison to the young woman's burden of grievance and to the painful estrangement it is creating with her mother. In counseling, one question worth consideration could be: “Is the hurt you are giving to others worth the hurt you are doing yourself?”


The hard statement is: “You’ll never forgive me!” Now Sorrow declares: “There is nothing I can do to undo what I did.” You cannot force forgiveness from a person you hurt. At most, you can honestly Admit (acknowledging your actions and accepting responsibility),sincerely Apologize (declaring true regret and committing to never repeat what you did again), and make meaningful Amends (being willing to listen to the injured party so long as they have need to talk their feelings out.) Beyond this, you cannot go. The rest is up to the wounded person to take whatever time they need, and whatever care of themselves they must, to finally let hard feelings go.

For example, accompanied by a classmate, the high achieving high school junior presents a report card with all A’s and one failing grade to her father who, totally surprised and extremely disappointed, lets her know in a loud display of temper how this is not okay. Now in a critical frame of mind, he proceeds to attack her other shortcomings in his eyes. In the heat of the moment, he uses cutting words that he immediately regrets, but now cannot unsay. Her friend having immediately fled the scene, the daughter confronts her dad: “What you said really hurt! And in front of my friend! I’ll never forget this!” And she storms off. Now the dad wants to reconcile, but her un-forgiveness is in the way. She wants no part of it. Over the course of several days, in spite of his admission, apologizing, and amends, his atonement, he realizes that readiness to resume the relationship, and on what terms, is up to her. Until traditional closeness is finally re-established, he is a lonely, disconnected man.


The hard statement is: “I’ll never forgive myself!” Now Guilt declares: “I’ll blame myself forever.” People who can’t forgive themselves can commit to punishing themselves in ongoing penance for what they once did. For example, the adolescent who has now grown out of her fierce rebellion that tore up the family and injured herself, can have a very hard time forgiving herself for the damage done. By rebelling against her own self-interests, she engaged in some self-defeating, self-destructive, and socially harmful behaviors that looking back on she regrets. “I will never get over how I acted,” she declares. But she must. Although her parents are ready to move on, she is not. This is why some recovery counseling may be in order to help the young woman come to emotional terms with how she acted and reach self-forgiveness so she can grow forward in a reconciled and happier way.

Even trying hard, parent and teenager are going to give and take some bruises with each other during adolescence because a mixed job is going to be the best job that each can do. This is a mix of strength and frailty, consideration and selfishness, wisdom and stupidity, good choices and bad that being only human ordains. From accident, ignorance, insensitivity, impulse, and intent, it’s easy to wound the other party, and to experience feeling wounded as well. In the aftermath of these offenses, people have a choice between holding on to feeling wronged or enlisting forgiveness for help in letting injured feelings go.

When there is no capacity for forgiveness, hard feelings can build as grievances solidify into grudges. Then ongoing resentments weigh people unhappily down, keeping them antagonized or estranged. Thus the need for forgiveness: as a means to recover their relationship to others and to themselves after a regrettable, hurtful, or harmful experience has passed.

By the end of adolescence, most parents and most teenagers have been given some cause to forgive and to be forgiven.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Challenge of Self-Management