Every mom knows how fast a cold can spread from one family member to another. But moods can be just as contagious. The other day, my 4-year-old, Joe, started wailing because his 6-year-old brother, Henry, refused to share an old piece of Halloween candy he'd found. Sam, 11, was yelling at me to make Joe be quiet so he could listen to his Beatles CD for the 45th time. And Henry was begging, "But why can't I eat it if supper isn't ready anyway?" I practically went through the roof, even though I'd been perfectly content three minutes before.
Although we're not always aware of it, we can't help but feel one another's emotions. Research shows that even a stranger will respond unconsciously to the sound of a baby's cries: His heart rate speeds up, and his blood pressure rises. If unrelated people respond this way to another person's distress, how much more so do we affect one another in our own home?
Meltdowns are inevitable in any family; the trick is to keep them to a minimum. Here, moms share their hard-won solutions for keeping the peace. (May they inspire some it's-not-too-late New Year's resolutions for making your own home even happier!)
Feed the hungry
Kids don't always recognize when they're hungry. Instead of saying calmly, "I need a snack," they just get fussier and more likely to blow up at the smallest thing. So I've learned not to let blood-sugar levels drop to the breaking point. I keep granola bars in the car, string cheese at kid level in the fridge, and bananas on the kitchen table. If someone gets whiny for no apparent reason, I hand out a snack, even if dinner will be on the table in ten minutes. And since I get fussier when I'm hungry, too, I make sure I eat mini-snacks myself.
Stick to rituals and routines.
"As I've seen with my own kids, there are fewer blowups when they know what to expect," says pediatrician Cathryn Tobin, M.D., a mom of four and author of The Parent's Problem Solver. Kids tend to view as negotiable any rules that vary—and are therefore much more likely to object. But if supper is always preceded by a quick pickup of toys and then bathtime, your child will know there's no point in raising a fuss about cleaning up.
Keeping the routine predictable also gets you out of the bad-guy business, found Shannon Anderson of Houston, Texas. Anderson has taught her kids, Evan, 6, and David, 4, that when the timer in the family room goes off, TV time is over. "This got me out of policing mode," she says, and it keeps her boys from whining for more TV.
Allow peaceful protest
Kids aren't always going to agree with rules, and they shouldn't have to suffer their frustration in silence. But neither should they be allowed to raise the whole family's stress level by throwing a fit. At our house, if someone needs to blow off steam, he has to do it in private, behind a closed bedroom door. Once he can calmly discuss why he's unhappy or thinks a rule is unfair, my husband and I listen.
This policy works just as well for toddlers as it does for big kids. From the time they could walk, our boys knew they had to go to their rooms to have a tantrum; they'd toddle down the hall bawling their eyes out, then they'd be back 30 seconds later, tears still wet on their cheeks, but calm. It's just no fun throwing a fit if there's no audience.
Send an angry child to cool off before he blows his stack. Lots of parents (I'm one) use time-outs as punishment. Better to use one as a chance to settle down and put the brakes on an approaching eruption. So when I see things starting to heat up with one of my kids, especially with hot-tempered little Joe, I tell him to go to his room and sing one whole song (at least three verses) or look at one whole book (page by page). By the time he finishes looking at a book in his room, he's able to come out and talk reasonably.
Issue advance notice
Kids don't like nasty surprises any more than the rest of us, and unannounced changes to their own plans are sure to set off a storm of tears and whines. So give a five-minute warning when playtime is about to end, and let kids know what they can expect on errand-running trips: "First, we're going to the grocery store—we're getting apples and bananas, not candy—and after that we'll meet Emma at the park." This is especially important when what's ahead for a child is an unpleasant change in routine, says Kathleen Barco, mom of Elena, 7, in Saratoga, California: "If she's expecting to play with her Barbies but I make her write her birthday thank-you notes instead, it's a sure invitation to throw a hissy fit. So I make certain to forewarn her of things she may not care for."
Make a date with a fusspot
When kids feel ignored, they're more likely to create a fuss. "When one of my kids is getting really crazy, I'll sit down with him and ask if he needs some special attention," says Christine D'Amico, author of The Pregnant Woman's Companion and mom of Max, 4, and Charlie, 2. "It's amazing what a puzzle or a game of Candy Land will do to calm kids down."
If there are needy younger children in the house, it's especially important to set aside one-on-one time for the older ones, says Lisa Eveleigh, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, mom of Helen, 9, Katherine, 5, and a newborn son, Michael. "When I notice Helen picking on her sister a lot, I take her out for a date to the bookstore, just the two of us. That clears up behavior problems—at least for a while."
Yield power when you can
Fight the good fight on issues that matter—riding in a car seat, for instance, or getting enough sleep—but let your child win battles where the only thing at stake is personal preference. "It used to really bother me that my youngest daughter dressed like a tomboy," says Dr. Tobin. "But after fighting with her to no avail because she refused to wear 'girly clothes,' I finally realized she had a right to her own style."
Anderson minimizes fussing at her house by offering plenty of choices; the trick is that she only offers options that are okay with her. On a low shelf in her pantry, for instance, she keeps three bins full of lunch choices—one with dried or canned fruit, one with salty snacks, and one with treats for dessert. "While I'm making sandwiches each morning, they get to choose one item from each bin. They get to feel they're in control, and we don't fight over what they're eating."
Tune out technology during the witching hour
For most kids, telephone rivalry is far more potent than sibling rivalry: Mom is more interested in that piece of hardware than in me! And the worst time for that kind of jealous irritation is the end of the day. It's hard enough getting everyone fed and bathed without fielding calls from chatty friends or relatives—or, worse, telemarketers. So I let the answering machine pick up all calls after 5 p.m., and I don't listen to my messages until the kids are all tucked in at 8:30. I turn off the TV, too. The constant nah-nah-nah in the background, plus your child's ability to tune you out while her eyes are glued to the screen, can turn any evening into a nightmare. If you're desperate to keep your child occupied while you cook, settle for a video that won't get her riled up (Raffi in concert is big at our house).
Distract the grouch
When 6-year-old Amber Sands and her 3-year-old sister, Caroline, are squabbling, the surest distraction is humor—especially physical comedy of the broadest kind, says mom Ginger Sands of Nashville. "A loud, inappropriate belch by Daddy is sure to stop the arguing and bring a round of giggles!" "If someone starts to whine or complain before dinner, I ask them to help me cook," says Jill Scobie, mom of Micaela, 12, Quinn, 8, and Nolan, 5, in Asheville, North Carolina. "They get to sample items as they're being prepared, and they earn lots of praise from the rest of the family at suppertime. It slows things down in the kitchen, but it keeps everyone more even-keeled."
I learned this lesson when I was a fourth-grader in Catholic school. For months I'd been heading into the confessional with the same sin: I was mean to my brother and sister. The priest gave me a creative penance. I had to kiss every member of my family and tell each one that I loved him or her once a day. And I couldn't explain that I was doing it because the priest told me to.
Believe me, no one was more startled than my little brother the first night I gave him a peck on the cheek and said, "I love you." At first he just stared at me, but then he said, "I love you, too." My sister and my parents did the same. It became a habit that stuck. To this day, every member of my family says "I love you" before hanging up the phone or walking out the door.
Fortunately, feelings of affection are as contagious as grouchiness, so the more you show your appreciation of one another, the more you'll get back. And it's the kind of bug you don't mind catching, again and again.