Parental acceptance in childhood predicts ability to forgive in adulthood.

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Last reviewed: 14.06.2024

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20 May 2024, 22:05

The ability to forgive and forget may not be as easy to achieve for some as for others, according to new research that suggests people develop this skill through the strength of their early relationships with their parents.

A study of nearly 1,500 adolescents and adults in five predominantly Muslim countries found that acceptance from parents in childhood was associated with a predisposition to forgiveness in adulthood, while rejection from the mother, father, or both parents led to to a tendency towards revenge when a person grows up.

This finding does not surprise Ronald P. Rohner, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection, based on his 60 years of research on human relationships around the world.

“Understanding how we perceive being cared for, or lack thereof, is fundamental to predicting our behavior, which typically goes beyond our expectations,” he says.

“For example, we found that the concept of God among adults who were rejected as children is qualitatively different from the concept of God among those who were accepted,” adds Rohner.

"Feeling loved or unloved as a child continues to influence your preferences in art and music. These predispositions are not mere coincidences."

Having studied the responses of several hundred thousand people over his sixty-year career, Rohner argues that, almost without exception, people everywhere—regardless of gender, race, and culture—understand that they are cared for or not, in the same four ways. p>

And when they don't feel loved, a number of 10 things typically happen, including anxiety, insecurity and anger, which can lead to things like suicidal ideation and substance abuse.

Recent research by Samblyn Ali, PhD 2021, with Rohner and HDFS professor Preston A. Britner, placed a group of young adults who had experienced childhood neglect in an MRI scanner and showed them a virtual experience designed to challenge feelings of rejection. Pain receptors in the brain were immediately activated.

"When someone hurts your feelings, it's not just a metaphor. It's pain," says Rohner, who has taught in the departments of anthropology and developmental and family sciences (HDFS) at the University of Connecticut.

"The difference with physical pain is that you remember your leg hurt when you kicked it three weeks ago, but you don't feel that pain," he continues. "With rejection, every time you think about it, your brain can be activated in the same way as when you first experienced it. The experience of rejection as a child can torment you for the rest of your life."

The religious aspect of forgiveness

This is all part of Rohner's theory of interpersonal acceptance-rejection, known as IPARTheory. It is an evidence-based theory of socialization and development across the life span.

Rohner says he recently began wondering whether parental acceptance affects the ability to forgive, and he and Ali put out an international request for researchers to collaborate on the question.

The loudest response came from colleagues in predominantly Muslim countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.

Roner and Ali, along with Jennifer Lansford of Duke University, collected data from partners in these regions, publishing the article "Memories of Parental Acceptance and Rejection Predict Forgiveness and Revenge in the Muslim World: Introduction and Overview" in The Journal of Genetic Psychology.

This article, one of the few in recent years to examine forgiveness and vengeance, is part of a special issue of the journal that came out this month and was edited by Rohner and Ali.

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