How You Can Help
Don't Dismiss Emotions
When parents are respectful and accepting of a child's feelings, kids become more self-confident and make friends more easily, notes Dr. Kamboukos. "They also do better in school and are more creative, effective problem solvers." Avoid minimizing your child's emotions; saying "There's nothing to cry about" when he's in tears will only frustrate him. Kids need you to attach a name to a feeling so they can learn to distinguish a range of emotions -- and become a caring person. For example, if your child gets in a squabble on a playdate, say, "I know you're mad that Sam took your cookie, but it hurts when you hit him. Tell him you're upset, and ask him to give it back." In time, he'll be more likely to take his friend's feelings into consideration -- and stop acting out.
A child who can interpret facial expressions will get along better with others because she'll understand their emotions, says Gurian. You can help by tearing out pictures from magazines to make a "feelings" scrapbook or poster. When reading together, stop and ask: "Is the girl in that picture happy or sad?" Tap in to your inner actress as you read so she knows a change in voice or body language is also a clue to a feeling.
Set an Example
"The everyday things you do and say reinforce the importance of caring about others," says Marilyn Rabinovitz, director of Shaloh House preschool and kindergarten, in Stoughton, Massachusetts. "Serving turkey dinner at a shelter on a holiday is wonderful, but you send a stronger message if you buy a few extra cans of food each time you go shopping and then drop them off at the food pantry." Just don't send conflicting messages -- if you snap at the cashier for giving you the wrong change, for instance, your child will think it's okay to treat people that way.
Make Her Responsible for Her Actions
Toddlers don't realize yet that what they do (or don't do) affects others. But while a child can't control her feelings, she can change her behavior. The minute you catch her being rude, speak up. "Don't assume that telling a child to say 'sorry' is enough," says Rabinovitz. "You need to tell her why and how she should apologize." Help her recall a similar experience of her own: "Amanda feels upset because you grabbed her toy. Remember how you cried when your brother took your markers yesterday? How can we make Amanda feel better?"
Give Him Props
Tell your child how proud you are when he's nice to someone: "I like the way you helped Matthew when he was afraid of the dog. You showed him how to pat it gently." In time, his caring impulses will become conscious choices.