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Forgiveness 101

"She broke my favorite model boat," wails your 7-year-old, pointing an accusing finger at his unrepentant younger sister. "I'll never talk to her again!"

Faced with such fury, parents may wonder how they'll ever teach their children to forgive and forget. It's an important lesson: "New studies show that there are concrete and long-lasting benefits to forgiving, including reduced stress, improved physical health, and better relationships," says Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D., a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist.

By age 5 or 6, most children are able to imagine what other people are feeling, which is essential to pardoning them. You can encourage this development by being a just but merciful role model yourself and following these steps when your child is wronged:

"Kids need to learn that it's okay to be angry," says Dr. Fitzgibbons, "but that staying angry for a long time can be harmful." Assure him that eventually he won't feel so bad, and suggest that in the meantime he release frustration by punching a pillow, stamping his feet, or drawing a picture.

Suggest that your child explain to the offender  -- speaking, not shouting  -- what her transgression was. "If you don't want her to do it again," you can explain, "she needs to know that you feel bad."

Remind your child that people often hurt others when they're feeling sad themselves (a bully may be picked on by his older siblings, for example) and that all of us are sometimes unkind, even though we don't mean to be.

Parents shouldn't fight most of their kids' battles for them, but if the infraction was serious  -- if hitting was involved, for example  -- you have an obligation to intervene, says Dr. Fitzgibbons. Talk to the parents of the instigator, and work together to make sure it doesn't happen again.