Children’s Conceptualizations of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Peacebuilding in the Context of Armed Conflict

  • Wilson López LópezEmail author
  • Andrea Correa-Chica
  • Myriam Carmenza Sierra-Puentes
  • Juan Gabriel Castañeda Polanco
  • Gabriela Fernández Miranda
  • María del Rosario Duran Jaramillo
  • Pablo Castro-Abril
Open Access
Part of the Peace Psychology Book Series book series (PPBS)


This chapter examines the effects that children face in situations of armed conflict and the central role that they play in building and consolidating peace. It analyzes how the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation contribute to peacebuilding and children’s visions of these constructs. Specifically, it presents the findings of an investigation that sought to understand the conceptualizations of forgiveness and reconciliation among Colombian children as well as their role in the construction of peace in this country. As such, 63 children between 10 and 13 years old participated. One group of participants (n = 29) was composed of children who were directly affected by conflict or in situations of economic and social vulnerability, residing in one of the areas with the most people displaced by armed conflict. The other group (n = 34) was composed of children living in optimal developmental conditions who had not directly experienced any victimizing event in relation to the Colombian armed conflict. The results showed convergences and divergences regarding the conceptualizations of the two groups. Some of the main differences were in relation to their views of the negotiated exit to the Colombian armed conflict and their conceptualizations of peace. The results show that socioeconomic contexts and previous experiences in relation to armed conflict permeate the country’s vision of the future.


Children Armed conflict Forgiveness Reconciliation Peacebuilding 

13.1 Introduction

World peace is threatened. According to the Global Peace Index, peaceful coexistence deteriorated worldwide between 2008 and 2018. The Middle East and North Africa were the most affected regions (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2017, 2018). The number and intensity of armed conflicts increased due to terrorist actions, deaths in conflict, the number of refugees, and internal displacement (Department of Peace and Conflict Research, 2017; Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2017; Melander, Pettersson, & Themnér, 2016; Save the Children, 2018).

International armed conflicts (i.e., confrontation between two or more states) and non-international conflicts (i.e., confrontation between government forces and nongovernmental armed groups or between those groups only; International Committee of the Red Cross, 2008) have transformed in the twenty-first century. Wars in towns and cities have increased, making streets and civilian homes battlefields where unarmed people suffer the greatest consequences (Action on Armed Violence, 2017, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2018; Wessells, 2016).

These transformations of armed conflict create a high burden of suffering on children (Wessells, 2016). According to a recent Save the Children report (2018), one in six children worldwide lives in areas of armed conflict and is at risk of serious violations to their human rights; this statistic has increased by 75% since 1990.

13.1.1 Effect of Armed Conflict on Children

Between 2005 and 2016, armed conflicts exposed children to the following main violations: (a) murders and/or mutilations; (b) forced recruitment by armed groups to serve as combatants, spies, messengers, porters, servants, or sexual slaves; (c) sexual violence, with cases of harassment, rape, or intent (i.e., acts of nonconsensual sexual relationships), slavery and/or trafficking, prostitution, marriage, and/or pregnancy, and abortion and/or sterilization; (d) forced abduction or disappearance (either temporary or permanent); (e) attacks on schools and hospitals, including the total or partial destruction of facilities; and (f) the denial of humanitarian assistance, which implies the intentional deprivation or obstruction of the passage of humanitarian aid that is indispensable for the survival of minors (Save the Children, 2018; United Nations Secretary General, 2017).

Working with children in contexts of armed conflict is a matter of extreme urgency. In fact, at the United Nations (UN) meeting of world leaders in 2015, one of the main Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 was to work to ensure that children fully enjoy their rights of survival, development, protection, and participation (Borská, Vacková, & Small, 2016; Save the Children, 2017; United Nations, 2002). Although the most effective way to protect children from the horrors of violence is through its prevention, given the current situation, it is important to recognize that children have a great capacity for resilience and can recover from traumatic experiences of war when provided with the necessary support (Barry, Clarke, Jenkins, & Patel, 2013; Haj-Yahia, Greenbaum, & Lahoud-Shoufany, 2018; Schultz, Sørensen, & Waaktaar, 2012). However, recovery is less likely when communities and services are paralyzed by conflict and cannot guarantee the principles of provision, protection, and participation related to children’s rights or when no progress is made in research or generation of intervention plans that foster the building of peaceful cultures (Fajardo Mayo, Ramírez Lozano, Valencia Suescún, & Ospína Alvarado, 2018; López & Sabucedo, 2007).

As previous investigations have reported, violations of human rights in childhood have a devastating effect because child survivors of atrocious acts are left with deep physical and emotional wounds that generate stress and trauma as well as affect their mental health and development (Fajardo Mayo et al., 2018; Haj-Yahia et al., 2018; Schultz et al., 2012; Wessells, 2016). Therefore, it is important and urgent that international communities, states, and governmental and nongovernmental institutions take practical measures aimed at the prevention of violence as well as the recovery of child victims or those in danger of becoming a victim of armed conflict to reduce the lifelong psychological and social problems associated with experiences of conflict and violence in childhood. Child victims should be supported to reintegrate into civilian life and survivors assisted to prevent them from being dragged into continuous cycles of violence (Borská et al., 2016; Save the Children, 2018; United Nations Secretary General, 2017).

Similarly, great diversity exists among children affected by armed conflict, and hence this subject cannot be addressed in a monolithic manner. It is necessary to consider their differences in terms of gender, stage of development, access to education, socioeconomic status, ethnic and cultural origins, type of victimhood (i.e., if the children are direct victims or indirect victims), and access to assistance or rehabilitative care (Haj-Yahia et al., 2018; Schultz et al., 2012). This diversity should not be avoided and when working with children affected by conflict and violence. Given that children and youth play a central role in social change, it is essential to start by answering key conceptual and empirical questions that allow adults to understand children’s own perspectives across different contexts, thereby generating appropriate intervention plans (Borská et al., 2016; Wessells, 2016).

13.1.2 The Participatory Role of Children

Past research and interventions in the context of armed conflict with child victims have reported that programs which focus on the promotion and generation of hopeful scenarios that promote mental health, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and active participation help to overcome the horrors of confrontation (Barry et al., 2013; Haj-Yahia et al., 2018; Schultz et al., 2012) and demonstrate minors’ high capacities for resilience, empowerment, and posttraumatic growth.

Fajardo Mayo et al. (2018) argued for the need to transform the way in which children are perceived, moving from seeing them as passive subjects to involving them as participatory actors who have a voice and the capability to respond to the violence that they have experienced. This chapter is in line with this approach, giving a voice to children as a symbol of change and allowing younger generations exposed to armed conflict to move from the role of victim to actors who transform their realities in search of building peaceful societies.

13.1.3 Multidimensional Model of Peacebuilding

The transformation from scenarios of armed conflict to scenarios of peace requires an interaction between socioenvironmental forces and individual behaviors/traits (Rubenstein & Stark, 2017). Thus, it is necessary to use an ecological framework of analysis (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) that allows for observations of change across socioeconomic, sociopolitical, sociolegal, sociocultural, socioenvironmental, and psychosocial dimensions (López López, 2017) in search of sustainable and peaceful environments.

In this regard, several studies have shown that new practices that incorporate identities, values, representations, and attitudes that promote more just and supportive intergroup relationships and break the cycle of violence are required (Jankowitz, 2017; Siem, Stürmer, & Pittinsky, 2016). It is here where children and adolescents must be considered so that they feel integrated and committed to change, resulting in processes of lasting transformation over time (Taylor et al., 2018).

13.1.4 Forgiveness and Reconciliation Related to Peacebuilding

Forgiveness and reconciliation are important aspects of peace processes because they generate positive effects at the intra- and interpersonal levels by generating new social networks, restoring others, overcoming feelings of resentment or revenge, rebuilding trust, ameliorating broken relationships, and improving coexistence in community and society (Alzate & Dono, 2017; Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010; Noor, James Brown, & Prentice, 2008).

At this point, it is necessary to clarify that although forgiveness and reconciliation are close and sometimes overlapping processes in the literature (Rettberg & Ugarriza, 2016), they are differentiated by their scopes. Forgiveness primarily involves an intra- and/or interpersonal scope (victim and/or victimizer), whereas reconciliation re-establishes the links among the victim, the victimizer, and the community to build a joint future (Castrillón-Guerrero et al., 2018). Forgiveness

Here, forgiveness is defined as the process through which the offended person voluntarily overcomes feelings, thoughts, and negative behavior toward the offender by replacing them with those of a positive nature, thereby changing their understanding of the issue, without the need to forget (Denham, Neal, Wilson, Pickerin, & Boyatzis, 2007; Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 2007; López López, Pineda-Marín, & Mullet, 2014; Murphy, 2007). However, it is important to clarify that the extant literature has different definitions of forgiveness that originate from different theoretical positions (Fehr et al., 2010; Rocha, Amarís, & López López, 2017; Taysi & Orcan, 2017; Worthington, 2006).

In addition, forgiveness has proven to be an important component related to children’s socioemotional competence because it allows for interpersonal conflict management, anger and resentment dissipation, prosocial interaction promotion, and long-term negative outcome prevention (Denham et al., 2007).

In contexts of armed conflict (specifically, the generation of a scenario), forgiveness is more likely when the damage caused is acknowledged and accompanied by truth, empathy regarding the pain of the victims, a show of repentance, and measures of reparation (Cortés, Torres, López López, Claudia Pérez, & Pineda-Marín, 2016; López López, Andrade Páez, & Correa-Chica, 2016). Without these factors, forgiveness can be a harmful and revictimizing process (Castrillón-Guerrero et al., 2018). Reconciliation

The study of the concept of reconciliation has increased in the literature since the 1990s, also leading to the emergence of multiple perspectives (Alzate & Dono, 2017; Bloomfield, 2015; Rettberg & Ugarriza, 2016). However, all agree that reconciliation focuses on repairing the social bonds that have been broken to build a collective future in which revenge is renounced as an option (Santa-Barbara, 2007). Ultimately, reconciliation is a process that enables the coexistence and acceptance of people and/or groups in conflict and that must be preceded by dialogue, goodwill, emotional and attitudinal change, compensation for the damage, the cessation of violence, and (in some cases) forgiveness (Bloomfield, 2015; Cortés, Torres, López López, Pérez, & Pineda-Marín, 2015; Noor et al., 2008; Rettberg & Ugarriza, 2016).

13.2 Research Context

One of the longest and most bloody internal armed conflicts in Latin America has taken place in Colombia (the context in which the research in this chapter was performed) for more than 60 years (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2013). One of the main consequences of this conflict is its manifestation in social institutions. Furthermore, behavioral and cognitive repertoires of most members of society are linked to fear, revenge, aggressive conflict management, and legitimization of violence (Bar-Tal, 2007). The negative effects of the conflict on the youngest population of Colombia are undeniable. To counteract it, the government has adopted legislative, institutional, and social measures to improve the protection and promotion of the rights of children. However, certain deficiencies have become evident in the process (Capone, 2016).

In the midst of the bleak panorama that has led to many years of armed conflict, large mobilizations have occurred over the last decades in search of collective memories, truth, justice, reparation, negotiated solutions to conflict, and building of a collective future. In this regard, a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) that seeks to consolidate peace and reconciliation was implemented in 2016 (United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, 2018). In this scenario, the role of younger generations is fundamental. Their visions are crucial for the design and development of the country’s future.

13.2.1 The Method Employed

In 2016, we explored the conceptualizations of Colombian children’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and their role in building peace. Sixty-three children between 10 and 13 years old participated. One group of participants (n = 29) was composed of children directly affected by the conflict or those in situations of economic and social vulnerability residing in Soacha (close to Bogotá), an area with the greatest number of people displaced by the armed conflict. The other group (n = 34) was composed of children living in optimal (non-vulnerable) developmental conditions in Bogotá who had not directly experienced a victimizing event as part of the Colombian armed conflict. The sampling method addressed relevant aspects with regard to the diversity of these children, such as types of victimization and living condition.

To collect data through in-depth interviews, a question guide was generated and subjected to processes of cognitive and construct validation to investigate forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacebuilding in Colombia. A total of 29 questions examined the following topics:
  1. (a)

    The definitions of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

  2. (b)

    Beliefs regarding the conditions that facilitated or hindered scenarios of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

  3. (c)

    Consequences that forgiveness and reconciliation have in the context of the armed conflict.


Grounded theory was used to analyze the data. As part of its inductive nature, the information collected through the interviews was coded, and an analytical interpretation was performed (Glaser & Strauss, 2009).

13.3 Results

13.3.1 Forgiveness

When the two groups of children were asked about the meaning of forgiveness, the definitions provided were (a) strategy for conflict resolution in which a new opportunity is given to the offender, (b) capacity for dialogue, and (c) replacement of negative feelings with positive feelings. Importantly, however, this last definition was strongly present in children in non-vulnerable conditions, whereas it was mentioned only twice in the vulnerable group. In addition, some participants considered forgiveness and reconciliation as the same; therefore, they answered the question “How do you understand forgiveness?” as a reconciliation between two people or groups. Children in non-vulnerable conditions also defined forgiveness as an acceptance of mistakes or differences or as a mechanism of forgetting. To a lesser extent, they understood forgiveness as a strategy of war.

The two groups of participants considered the recognition of errors, the need to establish a commitment not to repeat damage, and the acts of reparation by the offender as necessary to grant forgiveness. In addition, the non-vulnerable group proposed the implementation of punishments to armed groups, a show of sincerity and repentance, and an understanding of the motives that the offender had for inflicting pain as important and/or fundamental conditions for forgiveness to be generated.

The main consequences that the two groups of participants considered as generating forgiveness in the framework of armed conflict were contributions to the re-establishment of positive interactions between enemies to achieve peace by maintaining social relationships. In addition, the vulnerable participants proposed that forgiveness facilitates the process of reconciliation and eliminates feelings of resentment.

Finally, in relation to the impediments of forgiveness in the context of armed conflict, some participants mentioned that this process might be affected given the difficulty and even impossibility for enemies within the armed conflict to forgive each other. In addition, some of the children in non-vulnerable conditions stated that relationships change despite forgiveness.

13.3.2 Reconciliation

The narratives of both groups of participants defined reconciliation as a process of acceptance and the resumption of interactions in which the victim and perpetrator should participate. As already mentioned, however, it was common to find that some narratives did not consider a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Importantly, children in the vulnerable conditions also proposed reconciliation as a method of union and coexistence that contributes to the absence of conflict.

The main consequence of reconciliation that the two groups of participants raised was the possibility that enemies of the armed conflict might be reconciled to contribute to the achievement of peace. In addition, the participants in the non-vulnerable condition considered reconciliation as allowing for the re-establishment of positive interactions between enemies and the reintegration of members of armed groups into society.

On the other hand, in relation to the factors considered as hindering reconciliation, some of the participants in the non-vulnerable condition mentioned the difficulty of coexistence between enemies of the armed conflict after establishing peace and even the impossibility that the actors could be reconciled. The vulnerable group considered this issue as a difficulty but not as an impossibility.

13.3.3 Peacebuilding in Colombia

The participants defined peace in the context of armed conflict in Colombia as the absence or reduction of conflicts and as union and coexistence. Among the major differences in the definition of peace, the participants in the non-vulnerable condition stated that it was synonymous with calmness and security as well as with tolerance of different points of view and an absence of violence. Participants in the vulnerable condition proposed that it was a situation in which they could live in equality and considered this scenario as possible in Colombia.

Forgiveness and reconciliation were discussed as conditions that the participants believed are needed to achieve peace. Likewise the group in the non-vulnerable conditions added that it was also important to generate a bilateral commitment between the parties involved in the conflict.

Importantly, the group of participants in the non-vulnerable conditions stated that peace agreements are insufficient to end conflict and that it will continue, which shows the negative critical position of this group in the face of the peace treaty currently being implemented in Colombia. However, this peace was still in the negotiation phase during 2016 when these data collection was taking place (February through May).

13.4 Conclusions and Implications

Worldwide, important efforts have been made to integrate children into the building of more peaceful societies. Examples include opportunities in Chile, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, Peru, Sierra Leone, and others (UNICEF Innocenti Research Center & International Center for Transitional Justice, 2010). These instances have demonstrated that the perspectives and experiences of children are valuable resources to document the past and inform the way forward.

This chapter investigated the value of the views, perspectives, and experiences of children in the context of armed conflict. This study can help us find answers to questions such as “How can we improve the programs, services, and support that involve children?” from their perspective (Heykoop, 2018). Specifically, we sought to understand how children conceive forgiveness and reconciliation as well as the role that these processes play in peacebuilding scenarios.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are powerful tools to break the complex cycle of violence (Rocha et al., 2017). However, even if children learn that it is morally and socially important to forgive and/or be reconciled, they might not conceptually understand forgiveness or perform this action easily or well (Denham et al., 2007).

At the level of intervention, it is necessary to clarify that, in principle, forgiveness can only be granted or refused by the victim. This point is relevant when third parties (e.g., the state, church, community, and others) try to facilitate reconciliation scenarios, which might not promote expressions of forgiveness among people who are not ready to grant them (Santa-Barbara, 2007).

At the theoretical level, consensus shows that forgiveness does not mean forgetting victimization, nor does it mean reconciliation with the victimizer (Cortés et al., 2015; Rusbult, Hannon, Stocker, & Finkel, 2005; Taysi & Orcan, 2017). However, some participants stated these definitions in response to the questions “How do you understand forgiveness?” and “How do you understand reconciliation?” The implications of this confusion are potentially devastating given that children living in conflict might think that they must justify an offense or repair a relationship they actually prefer to give up (Taysi & Orcan, 2017).

Although some advanced studies have examined conceptualizations of forgiveness among children (Denham et al., 2007; Taysi & Orcan, 2017), none in the recent literature have addressed the issue specifically in the context of armed conflict. Thus, it is necessary to continue advancing this area of research using different methodologies to enable progress toward the implementation of interventions because the adult literature has demonstrated the benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. However, it is also necessary to avoid revictimizing children by insisting on forgiveness in cases when they are not ready or by not ensuring that forgiveness is accompanied by the truth, knowledge of the motivation of the offense, a recognition of the damage, contrition, empathy, reparation, and non-repetition (Castrillón-Guerrero et al., 2018; López López et al., 2016; López López et al., 2018; López López, Pineda Marín, Murcia León, Perilla Garzón, & Mullet, 2012).

This study made progress in the investigation of interpersonal and/or intergroup forgiveness, but it did not investigate intrapersonal forgiveness. However, considering the multiple rights violations faced by children in conflict, where it is highly likely that they are involved in a victimizing act, it might also be necessary to work with interventions to positively affect the mental health of future generations.

The literature also provides reports of one-sided forgiveness processes in which there is no evidence of remorse or apology on the part of the offender (Santa-Barbara, 2007). Thus, it is relevant to continue working on the meaning of apology for both the victim and the victimizer as well as to explore when, why, and whether these apologies are important (Fehr et al., 2010). Some advances in this regard show that apologies have a liberating and repairing function that allows for personal relief, a step toward reconciliation, and the replacement of negative emotions with positive emotions. However, it is necessary to deepen studies in this regard by including perpetrators (Hareli & Eisikovits, 2006; Leonard, Mackie, & Smith, 2011; López López et al., 2016).

The main differences that were observed in the narratives of the groups of participants were (1) their visions of the negotiated exit to the Colombian armed conflict and (2) the conceptualization of peace. With regard to the first element, the group in the non-vulnerable conditions had a negative critical stance of the scope of the peace agreement and the subsequent coexistence between enemy actors, whereas the vulnerable children were optimistic, even when they stated that it was a challenging scenario. With regard to the second element, children in the non-vulnerable conditions considered peace as a concept close to security, calmness, and coexistence in pluralistic scenarios, whereas those in the vulnerable conditions focused their narratives on viewing peace as an arena of equality.

These results show that socioeconomic contexts and previous experiences in relation to armed conflict permeate the visions of the future among younger generations of Colombians. These contexts commit states and institutions to seek pluralistic intervention approaches as well as the generation of more egalitarian conditions in which the rights of children are guaranteed. These actions will help prevent new cycles of violence and build a more just future.



The authors would like to thank the Fundación Alas Cinco and the Colegio Italiano Leonardo da Vinci as well as the children and families who are a part of these organizations in Colombia that allowed us to conduct the research that formed the basis of this chapter.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Wilson López López
    • 1
    Email author
  • Andrea Correa-Chica
    • 2
  • Myriam Carmenza Sierra-Puentes
    • 3
  • Juan Gabriel Castañeda Polanco
    • 4
  • Gabriela Fernández Miranda
    • 1
  • María del Rosario Duran Jaramillo
    • 1
  • Pablo Castro-Abril
    • 5
  1. 1.School of PsychologyPontificia Universidad JaverianaBogotáColombia
  2. 2.Departamento de Psicoloxía Social, Básica e Metodoloxía, Facultade de Psicoloxía, Universidade de Santiago de CompostelaSantiago de CompostelaSpain
  3. 3.Fundación Universitaria Konrad LorenzBogotáColombia
  4. 4.Corporación Universitaria Minuto De DiosBogotáColombia
  5. 5.Universidad del País VascoLejona, VizcayaSpain

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