Relationship Study Says Parental Acceptance in Childhood Predicts Ability to Forgive as Adults

'Your childhood rejection experiences can bully you for the rest of your life'

A frightened child holds up a hand, palm extended.

(Adobe Stock)

The ability to forgive and forget might not be as easy for some as it is for others, a new study suggests, as the skill is developed in people through the strength of their earliest relationships – with their parents.

A study of nearly 1,500 adolescents and adults in five predominantly Muslim countries has found that parental acceptance in childhood is associated with a predisposition for forgiveness in adulthood, while parental rejection – by mother, father, or both – leads to a tendency for vengeance when one is grown.

It’s a finding that Ronald P. Rohner, UConn professor emeritus and director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection, says isn’t surprising based on his 60 years of research into human relationships worldwide.

“Understanding how we process the feeling of being cared about or not is fundamentally important for predicting what our behavior is going to be in ways we normally don’t expect,” he says.

“We have found, for example, that the image of God among adults who were rejected in childhood is qualitatively different from the image of God among adults who were accepted,” Rohner adds. “Feeling loved or not loved in childhood goes on to influence the kind of art you prefer and the kind of music you like. These dispositions are not mere coincidences.”

After studying the responses of several hundred thousand people during his six-decade career, Rohner says that almost without exception, people everywhere – regardless of gender, race, and culture – understand themselves to be cared about or not in the same four ways. And when they don’t feel loved, a cluster of 10 things usually happen – including anxiety, insecurity, and anger, which can lead to things like suicide ideation and substance abuse.

A recent study from Sumbleen Ali ’21 Ph.D., with Rohner and HDFS professor Preston A. Britner, put a group of young adults who experienced parental rejection in childhood in an MRI and showed them a virtual experience meant to trigger a sense of rejection. Right away, the pain receptors in the brain lit up.

“When somebody hurts your feelings, that’s not simply a metaphor. That is pain,” says Rohner, who taught in UConn’s departments of Anthropology and Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS).

“The difference with physical pain is you’ll remember your toe hurt when you stubbed it three weeks ago, but you won’t feel that pain,” he continues. “With rejection, every time you think about it, it can light up your brain in the same way as when you first experienced it. Your childhood rejection experiences can bully you for the rest of your life.”

A religious dimension to forgiveness

All this is part of Rohner’s interpersonal acceptance-rejection theory, known as IPARTheory. It’s an evidence-based theory of socialization and lifespan development.

Rohner says he recently started to wonder whether parental acceptance affects the ability to forgive, and, with Ali, put out an international call asking for researchers who would be interested in collaborating to find out.

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

Rohner and Ali, along with Jennifer Lansford from Duke University, gathered data from partners in these parts of the world, publishing “Memories of Parental Acceptance and Rejection Predict Forgiveness and Vengeance in the Muslim World: Introduction and Overview” in The Journal of Genetic Psychology.

The article, one of only several in recent years that have looked at forgiveness vs. vengeance, is part of a special journal issue out this month that was edited by Rohner and Ali.

Rohner says that while the results of the study weren’t a surprise to them, the shock was the fact that researchers from the Muslim world were the most eager to participate.

Why?, they wondered.

“We did some research on Islamic teachings. We learned that Prophet Muhammad once said that whosoever suffers an injury and forgives the person responsible, Allah will raise his status to a higher degree and remove one of his sins,” Ali says. “It’s basically a core belief in Islam, and that’s one reason we found that as compared to other Abrahamic religions, Islam focuses a lot on forgiveness.”

The Quran also says, “Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal,” Rohner adds, noting sections relating to vengeance.

“In each one of these five countries, we asked contributors to include males and females thinking about their mothers and fathers, and we found that parental love predicted a greater disposition toward being forgiving,” Rohner says. “The feeling of rejection, by either or both parents, was a predictor of vengeance, people’s willingness to take revenge on somebody.”

What’s more, he continues, once a person experiences serious parental rejection, there’s no erasing the effects. Therapy and the love of an intimate partner later in life can help dull some of the sharp response, but the associated pain is likely to linger throughout life.

“We think there are practical implications for this,” Ali says of the study. “We believe that a lot of life’s miseries, even the current situation that we’re in globally, can be solved or at least modified if we start early and if parents simply love their children.”

‘Life is full of people who don’t fully accept us’

But loving a child doesn’t necessarily come easily for mothers and fathers.

Rohner says both men and women change hormonally when they become parents, but these biological shifts aren’t enough to move everyone to want to form loving attachments with offspring. Many babies, for instance, are born the result of unwanted pregnancies.

A study done in the Czech Republic of women who were denied abortions shows that while several of the babies did grow up in loving homes, most did not and had more significant medical and psychological problems than their peers, Rohner says.

“Life is full of people who don’t fully accept us,” he explains. “The bus driver is cranky, he’s always cranky, and is dismissive of you. It’ll hurt your feelings, maybe, but it’s not going to bruise you for a long period of time. If your parent does that, your intimate partner does that, all kinds of things metabolically as well as psychologically happen in our bodies.”

Ali says another study of theirs on rejection sensitivity shows those who have experienced rejection are more sensitive to future rejection, always on the lookout for those cues, always analyzing whether something was a slight, always picking apart other’s comments for underlying meanings.

“They’re predisposed to believe the world is not safe, relationships are not safe, that they can’t trust other people. That’s where part of this vengeance comes from,” Rohner says, adding that childhood rejection experiences oftentimes predict loneliness in adulthood. “I’m not going to say that everything about loneliness is because of rejection, but it’s a significant predictor.”

With about 341 million people in the United States and between 7% and 10% of Americans identifying themselves as having endured childhood rejection, Rohner says up to 34.1 million Americans could be affected.

Some are what Ali and Rohner call “copers” (pronounced cope-ers), those rejected people whose psychological adjustment is not as impaired because a grandmother, older sibling, or someone else in childhood provided the denied parental love, giving them the ability to cope. This helped teach the person how to become resistant and resilient to the most serious effects of rejection.

Ali says she plans to screen some self-identified “copers” in an MRI to see how their brains function as compared to other groups on the accepted-rejected continuum.

“We want to develop a measure of coping and see if we can figure out what attributes are within the individual, not simply their circumstances, that allow them to deal more effectively than most people with the experiences of rejection,” Rohner says.

All this work allows the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection to offer clinicians, court personnel, and child protective services workers what they need to help people, they say.

The most important information also can be incorporated in parent education classes, the very place parents are taught about their babies.

“We offer so much information now on interpersonal relationships that clinicians are telling me a problem that might have taken six weeks to get a handle on with a patient can now be done in the first or second session,” Rohner says. “It’s a huge value for them in all kinds of ways that I had never imagined before.”