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Does a Two-Year-Old Understand Being Sorry?

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: We make our two year old say, "I'm sorry," when she hits someone, like her mother, brother or sister. She refuses at first, so we make her stand in a corner until she's ready to say it.

Does a child this age know what it means to be sorry? Is she just saying the "magic" words? Should we continue to make her say she is sorry?

A: Your two year old does not yet have a hard-wired, internalized conscience. Nor is she intellectually at an age of reason (which usually begins at around two-and-a-half). Therefore, making her say "I'm sorry," and putting her in a corner until she does will have no long-term effect. This punitive approach really doesn't discipline a two year-old. It just teaches them the words that they have to say to get back to playing.

At this age, toddlers usually do not have highly developed social or language skills. Given their lack of verbal ability and interpersonal skills, they often turn to hitting and other forms of aggression (e.g. biting) to express their frustration and anger etc. Removing your child from the scene of the aggression and redirecting her attention to something else is a productive response with this age group. Try being firm and telling her that her hitting hurts and is not allowed. Then leave the room, and leave her to connect your departure with her misbehavior. Over time, this response will result in behavioral changes. Actions such as these have much more of an impact than lecturing, scolding, time-outs and insisting upon an apology. Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, by Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy is an excellent resource for you.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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