It's hard to imagine that the wee one gleefully painting the wall could ever be racked with guilt over it. Yet a recent study at the University of Iowa showed that not only do toddlers feel remorse for misbehaving, but that the emotion also bodes well for their development: Two-year-olds who felt bad for acting up had fewer behavioral problems later on than kids who didn't. One key caveat: "Toddlers cannot tell the difference between their selves and their behavior," says June Tangney, Ph.D., a psychologist at George Mason University. That means they might feel shame (the belief that they are bad) instead of far-healthier remorse (which places the judgment on their actions). "Trying to teach the difference is essential." What to know:
Watch your tone
What parent doesn't get angry? But be careful not to convey contempt when you inevitably get upset. She'll remember that more than your actual words.
Focus on feelings
Connecting the toddler's action to the hurt it caused teaches empathy. When Finn Greatzke, 2, started biting his sister, his mother made sure Finn understood its effect. "I told Hannah to tell him calmly how much it hurt," the Washington, DC, mom says. "It took time, but he stopped."
Some kids are more sensitive than others. You want to figure out how to call her attention without overwhelming her, Tangney says. If she's crying or pushing you away, she's not really able to listen to what you're saying. Wait until after she calms down.