One recent Saturday morning, we were on the highway driving to my son's swimming championship when we hit a lane closure apparently caused by construction. A line of stopped cars stretched for as far as the eye could see. And Eric, 8, went ballistic."Why did you go this way?" he wailed from the backseat, widening his eyes and waving his hands. "We'll be late for warm-up. I need to warm up. If I don't warm up before my first event, I'm doomed. Doomed!"
I assured Eric that we'd left home early in case there was traffic, and I promised him that we'd arrive at the pool well before warm-up. But Eric didn't believe me, and he ranted and raved for the ten long minutes that we sat on the expressway. "He sounds just like you," my husband said, smiling slyly. "You should hear yourself sometimes."
Ouch! The truth hurts. I am an Olympic-caliber fit-pitcher when life hands me the slightest snafu. But is having what I've always considered a lovably short fuse actually detrimental to our children? "Behaviors like overreacting have a boomerang effect: What we throw out to our kids will come right back at us," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist in Palm Springs, California.
Obviously, the key is to clean up your own act so you can set a good example for your kids. But knowing where to begin isn't always evident -- after all, a habit, by definition, is something you do without thinking about it. If you can break these bad boys, you're on your way to a new and improved family life.
1. You see life as a 24/7 crisis, so freaking out is the most logical response.
When your 7-year-old leaves his sneakers at basketball practice, you roll your eyes and sigh, "There you go again -- always forgetting things!" And when your puppy has another accident in the kitchen, you burst into tears.
HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR KIDS In some situations, going ballistic or having a meltdown is a normal reaction -- and you'd be spin-doctoring (see #2) if you didn't! But if you sweat all the small stuff -- things that you can't control and that don't matter in the big picture -- your child won't know how to react to life's ups, downs, and in-betweens, cautions Scott Haltzman, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment.
It's hard for him to figure out what's appropriate versus what's over the top when you constantly raise your voice and exaggerate by using phrases such as "you never" or "you always." So your child may say, "You're so unfair! You're the worst mom in the world!" because you don't let him eat ice cream before bedtime. The other big negative is that when something really is wrong, kids may block you out because it sounds like your everyday communication," warns Dr. Haltzman. If "The dam is breaking in Lehigh County, and we have to evacuate" comes out with the same intensity as "You didn't pick up your Legos," kids may not snap into immediate action when you really need it.
KICK THE HABIT When something goes wrong, mentally assign it a number on a scale of one to ten, with one being an incident that has no bearing on the quality of your life (your 6-year-old misplaced his sweatshirt) and ten as an emergency (your toddler's finger was slammed in the car door ). Now, vow not to go Drama Mama for any mishap that's less than an eight. "At first you may feel like everything is a 20, but over time you'll begin to see that there are differences between these events," Dr. Haltzman says.