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.
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.
Your fender bender will set you back $500 in repairs, and your best friend is moving to California. No wonder you feel like throwing a pity party. But when your 5-year-old asks what's wrong, you smile and say, "Nothing, honey! Everything's fine!"
HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR KIDS It's one thing to be positive, but it's a mistake to conceal your true emotions. Your child needs to learn that it's okay to feel sad, angry, or frustrated. And the truth is that no matter how much you think you're hiding, children come equipped with highly sensitive radar. "Kids pick up what's left unsaid," explains Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety Into Joy and Success. "If you don't share your emotions appropriately, you'll teach your kids to lie about their feelings," says Dr. Reznick. "Plus, your child could think that she's the reason you're upset and end up feeling bad about herself."
KICK THE HABIT It all starts with you being a little cranky -- or sad, or frustrated, or confused, or scared -- and letting that emotion show. "Children need a role modelfor talking about their feelings," says Dr. Haltzman. Put a label on your emotion, explain the reason for it in a way she'll understand, and relate it to something she's experienced. You might say, "I'm getting a new boss, and I don't know how we'll get along. Remember how you were nervous about meeting your new teacher? Well, that's how I feel now." Or, "I'm feeling sad about Grandma being sick. It's okay to be sad -- even mommies get sad sometimes. But I know the doctors are taking good care of her."
Give more details to 7- and 8-year-olds than to younger kids because they can understand more and separate other people's problems from their own, says Dr. Reznick. Let kids ask questions, so you can allay their concerns and they can hear the truth about what's happening, rather than fantasize about the worst.
You want your 4-year-old to tidy up, so you ask, "Can you put your toys away?" and follow with, "Now, okay?"
HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR KIDS When you give a direction as a question or tack "okay?" onto the end, your child hears a request -- and assumes that he has the option of not doing it. "You relinquish your authority and drag out the process of getting your child to do what you need him to do," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., child psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child. When your child ignores your "request," you'll repeat yourself and lose your patience. Then no one's happy.
KICK THE HABIT Clarity is key when you expect immediate follow-through. And it starts with putting a period at the end of your sentence: "Get dressed for the park, please." Or, "Turn off the TV, now." That's it. "If your child doesn't immediately listen, say the following one time only: 'Show Mommy how you can turn off the TV, or Mommy will help you,'" advises Dr. Walfish. "Wait for a silent count of two, then take the remote." Of course, giving clear directions still requires practice and persistence. But being clear will regain control and stop you from losing your temper; meanwhile, your child learns who's boss and how to follow directions.
You scrutinize your child's every mistake. When her report card is filled with A's and B's, you point to the C she got in spelling and say, "What happened?" When she makes her bed but leaves some sheets dangling over the mattress, you say, "Why can't you make the bed properly?"
HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR KIDS If your critiques outweigh your kudos, your child may either ignore you or get defensive, and in either case will miss out on anything constructive you have to say. Worse, nitpicking also can erode her self-confidence -- to the point where she could stop trying to achieve because she's afraid she'll fail and disappoint you. Or maybe she'll become a perfectionist, thinking that anything less will cost her your love. "If you constantly give negative feedback or fixate on your child's weaknesses instead of her strengths, she may believe that she can't succeed," says Cathy Cassani Adams, a child and family psychotherapist and the author of The Self-Aware Parent: 19 Lessons for Growing With Your Children.
KICK THE HABIT You should always give your kid more praise than put-downs. That doesn't mean you need to avoid mentioning mistakes -- just that, first, you should acknowledge your child's achievement: "Wow, look at all the A's and B's. That's great!" Then, gently offer assistance in the area where she fell short: "Spelling's a tough subject. I'd like to help you study for your next test."
In general, resist the urge to point out every error, and instead try to mention the good things she does on a daily basis, Adams advises. You might say, "Thanks for bringing your dishes over. That helps me clean up after dinner" instead of "Why did you leave the ketchup on the table?" Another benefit of upping the kudos: Your child will be more willing to take a critique seriously because she knows that you see what she does right.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.