Isn’t It Time to Stop Judging Yourself?

Bad habits aren’t limited to things like nail biting and procrastination. For women, one of the most common and insidious habits is being overly critical or judgmental of themselves. What’s worse, a pattern of self-criticism can become so ingrained, you might not even notice you’re doing it.

“It’s a huge issue for women,” says Alice Domar, who has a doctorate in health psychology and is the author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect. “We criticize ourselves from morning to night, and all that negative self-talk puts you at risk for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.”

You can learn to silence your inner critic and become more accepting of yourself, however. Start with these strategies:

1. Listen to yourself.
The first step is to recognize when you’re engaging in negative self-talk. Decide to spend a day tuned into your thoughts about yourself and jot down every comment. That night, count how many are negative.

Seeing in ink how many times you call yourself a bad mother or berate your lack of diet willpower helps you realize just how critical you’re being. “It’s a big wake-up call,” says Domar.

2. Be honest.
Now that you’re better tuned in, when you “hear” criticism, ask yourself four questions, says Domar: "Is this thought logical? Is it true? Does this thought contribute to my stress? Where did it come from?" In most cases, your answers will be, "No, it’s not logical or true. Yes, it stresses me out." And the thought originally came from a former boss, a judgmental relative or a mean teacher you had in high school.

By paying attention to and dissecting the criticism in this way, you can better realize that the criticism isn’t valid. And that’s a crucial first step toward stopping it.

3. Avoid the comparison game.
Comparing yourself to others doesn’t do anything but make you feel bad. It’s unfair and damaging to reprimand yourself because you’re not as thin as one friend or as organized as another. “There will always be someone who will exceed you in some part of life,” says Pauline Wallin, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has written Taming Your Inner Brat.

Instead, focus on what you do right. Recognize, for example, that you’re a great multitasker or can manage a complex project efficiently -- and ignore that you’re not a pro networker like your colleague. You’ll feel better about yourself, which helps you succeed in the long run.

4.
Look at the big picture.
So what if your house isn’t immaculate? Who cares that you lost your keys? Will beating yourself up change anything in the grand scheme of things?

It’s important not to get caught up in minor details. Instead, think about what’s really important: You may not spend time scrubbing your floors, but you do spend time with your kids, and they are healthy, well-adjusted and love you, for example.

5. Get a second opinion.
“People hold themselves to much higher standards than they do others,” says Domar. So when you start getting beat down, talk to a trusted friend to get a needed reality check.

Another’s voice will help you see things from an outsider’s more accepting perspective. She’ll help you realize all the things you’re doing well in your life and that nobody thinks you’re a bad mother, woman, employee -- whatever! Your criticisms will soon seem as silly and unwarranted as they actually are.

6. Decide to stop being negative.

After a while, you will start to recognize when you’re about to be (or are being) too hard on yourself. When you do, stop yourself -- literally, says Domar. Visualize a stop sign, take slow, deep breaths, then consciously make a choice not to be negative. Remember that you control your thoughts. It can be quite empowering to decide not to let them hurt you.

Try changing the subject in your head by shifting to something positive, such as an upcoming party or vacation. Changing the subject helps short-circuit negative thoughts immediately, says Wallin.

7. Keep a bravo journal.

Getting in the habit of recognizing success can help overtake negativity. So at the end of each day, take stock of what you did well and write it in a journal or share it with your partner. “A lot of us have been brought up to think bragging is bad,” says Domar. “But if you’ve accomplished something, recognize and share the good news.”

Whether you gave a stellar presentation at work or helped your daughter create an A-plus art project, seeing accomplishments in writing or hearing them in your own voice helps you think of yourself more positively every day. This will evict the inner critic, and a kinder commentator will move in -- one who treats you with the respect you’re so good at giving others.

Teaching Kids to Stop the Spread of Germs

If it seems as if your kids are always picking up germs and getting sick, it’s not your imagination. With developing immune systems, packed classrooms and a tendency to taste and touch with abandon, kids are much more likely than adults to catch and spread germs, says Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine.

But you can teach kids habits to help them avoid and contain germs so they -- and the rest of your family -- stay healthy. And the earlier you start, the better, says Betsy Brown Braun, a parenting expert and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. Try these tricks for teaching little ones to stay germ-free. With practice, the habits will become as ingrained as saying please and thank you.

1. Lead by example.

The most important habit to teach kids: Wash hands often. Wash them before eating, after returning home, after using the bathroom or blowing their nose. And if they accidentally cough or sneeze into their hands (instead of into their sleeve), teach them to wash hands right away.

As you might expect, the best way to drive home the message is by demonstrating these good habits yourself. Wash your hands at these times too -- every time.

“The magic is modeling the behavior,” says Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist and author of Family Fit. Children learn more by watching than any other way.

Accompany your behavior with a verbal cue: “We wash our hands every time after using the bathroom” or “We wash our hands every time before we eat.” Kids will start remembering even when you’re not around.

2. Sing a song.

Getting kids to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds is just as important as having them wash in the first place. “Kids usually stick their hands under water for a split second, which doesn’t kill any germs,” says Mayer. But give them a fun way to measure time, and they’ll stick it out longer.

Singing the happy birthday song twice or saying the ABCs takes about 20 seconds. Practice with your child when washing hands together. Over time, your child will start singing and scrubbing to the end of the song on her own.

3. Play a game.

When kids cough or sneeze into the air, on their hands -- or worse, on their friends -- germs spread easily. To teach them to aim into their sleeve, create a game out of it.

“Tell them they have a ‘germ catcher’ in the crook of their arm, and when they aim there, they catch and trap the germs,” suggests Braun. It may take a little time but remind them about the game every time, and the habit will eventually stick.

4. Add a cool factor.

Since one of the ways germs are transmitted is through hand-to-hand contact, talk to your child about not giving high fives on the sports field. Instead, help him come up with a unique greeting he thinks is cool.

Mayer, for example, gives his patients a fist bump. When you pick up your child from practice, use his greeting to encourage its use. (Unless, of course, he’s at the age when everything mom does is just not cool.)

5. Use a visual aid.

It’s smart for your child to keep a distance from kids who are constantly coughing or wiping a runny nose, says Sears. Likewise, if your kid sees a pal sneeze or cough on a toy or a ball, he should choose a different object to play with.

Since kids tend to be visual learners, use a water-filled spray bottle to simulate how far coughs and sneezes can reach while explaining how germs are spread. “Tell them that everyone has water in their body that contains germs,” says Braun. “Be clear that it’s normal -- you don’t want to create a germophobe -- but explain that it’s best if everyone keeps their germs to themselves.”

6. Make food shareable.

You teach kids to share, but the lesson backfires when it comes to passing germs via swapped bites. Do your part by cutting apples into slices and sandwiches into quarters when making lunches. Even throw in an extra spoon for pudding. Then, tell your child that if he wants to share with a buddy, each boy gets his own portion.

7. Praise good behavior.

When you catch your kid practicing a healthy habit, tell her how proud you are. “Kids want to please you, so heap on the praise and they’ll keep doing it,” says Braun.

Also, try offering an incentive. Give her a sticker every time she sneezes into her sleeve or washes her hands unprompted. “Once she gets a certain number of stickers, do something special, like visiting the aquarium,” suggests Braun.

By consistently practicing good habits at home, your kids will take them everywhere, including into adulthood. “It’s the seat belt effect,” says Braun. Once your child does these habits enough, they become as automatic as buckling in. And that means you spend less time playing nurse!


Secrets to Sneaking in More Sleep

These days, more and more people are sleeping fewer and fewer hours. But we don’t need to tell you that. Keeping up with your kids, household and the rest of your life has likely made you a living, breathing -- and exhausted -- example of today’s sleep-deprived woman.

But a sleep deficit can be a lot more problematic than just making you feel tired. It can also negatively impact your health. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to be overweight, because the body may create less leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite. Sleep deprivation can also increase levels of C-reactive protein, a substance that puts you at a greater risk for inflammation that leads to heart disease. What’s more, shaving off hours from your rest can leave you feeling extra stressed and make your skin duller and more tired-looking. (Skin goes to work shedding dead cells and repairing itself while you snooze.)

To avoid the pitfalls, most adults need seven or eight hours, says Phyllis Zee, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Not hitting the magic number? Here are some innovative ways to squeeze in an extra 30 to 60 minutes of sleep each day.

1. Ban the snooze button
Even if it doesn’t feel like it, you’re actually more awake the first time your eyes open than after a string of 10 snooze naps. “Continuing to fall back asleep after each alarm buzz makes you feel groggier in the end,” says Dr. Zee. So either set your alarm for the time you must wake up or get up on the first buzz and save those snooze minutes for an early-afternoon nap.

2. Become a champion multitasker
You’ve already mastered the art of doing two things at once (sometimes more!), so these ideas should be a breeze. Count the extra minutes you save throughout the day and go to bed that much earlier.

  • Drive and talk Get a hands-free device for your cell phone and catch up with your friends on your way home from work instead of after dinner. 
  • Email anywhere Don’t have a BlackBerry or iPhone? Think about getting one. You may cluck at those people constantly glued to their mini-screens, but the occasional check-in while waiting for soccer practice to end, for example, lets you stay on top of your inbox and Facebook account. Doing this means less time getting bleary-eyed at the computer and more time getting shut-eye.
  • Have a working lunch Instead of going out with co-workers, pack a lunch once or twice a week and pay bills or tackle your online to-do list during the noon hour.
  • Plot a course Think about all your errands and ask yourself if there’s a way to spend less time behind the wheel. For example, can you use the grocery store’s pharmacy instead of the one a mile away? Is your current dry cleaner really better than the one next to your son’s school? Make all your stops as convenient and as close as possible.

3. Limit caffeine after 4 p.m.
You need that cup of coffee or tea in the morning, but think twice before making a Starbucks run or downing a Diet Coke in the afternoon. Depending on how much caffeine is in that venti latte, it could take 24 hours for it to flush out of your system. That means you could still feel the perky effects of your pick-me-up at, say, 10 p.m., and instead of winding down, you’d be gearing up to start the next item on your to-do list.

4. Nap the right way
Four to 7 p.m. is the nap danger zone -- when you feel most sleepy but also when you should most avoid dozing off. Why? Snoozing in the late afternoon or early evening can keep you awake later at night, says Dr. Zee. If you can, nap only between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and limit actual sleep time to 15 minutes, she suggests. That’s all you really need to feel invigorated, she says. Nap any longer, and you could feel groggy.

5. Make the most of your evenings
Try to prepare for the next day’s activities on the night before. You’ll be able to sleep in a bit longer and rest easier knowing things are in order and ready to go.

  • Prep while you cook Make tomorrow’s lunches while waiting for the pasta to boil or the casserole to bake, or while cleaning up leftovers. Food and condiments are already out, saving you a few minutes in the end.
  • Ditch the blow-dryer Shower and shampoo hair at night and let it dry while you sleep. Better yet, only wash it every few days. A spritz or sprinkle of dry shampoo soaks up oil and revives your style.
  • Set it and forget it Pick out everything you need for tomorrow’s outfit the night before, including shoes and accessories. Double-check that all your essentials -- wallet, keys, letters for the post office -- are in your handbag and place it by the door. Also, keep your daily skin care and makeup products out and ready so you don’t waste time rifling through a bag full of stuff you never use.

6. Establish a bedtime
What time must you wake up to get the kids to school on time and yourself to the office? Now work backward seven or eight hours to figure out when you must hit the hay to get a full night’s sleep. About an hour or two before, take a warm shower or bath, then put on socks to keep your feet warm. Warming up and then keeping your feet toasty allows your core body temperature to fall slightly, helping you relax and fall asleep easier, says Dr. Zee. The scheduled downtime also prevents you from losing track of time while reading, watching the evening news or surfing Facebook.

Photo: Corbis Images

Your Biggest Holiday Dilemmas – Solved!

There’s nothing like the holiday season to put us under pressure. Whether it’s buying the perfect gift or hosting the best party, we’re in a race to meet high --and often unrealistic -- expectations during what’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”

“We try to make our friends, relatives and children happy, but you just can’t please everybody all the time -- especially during the holidays,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It.

Here, a guide how to navigate four of the stickiest holiday dilemmas while keeping your relationships intact and reducing holiday stress.

 

Situation: Trimming your gift list without upsetting anyone.

Solution:  In today’s economy, drawing the line on gift-giving is a no-brainer. But the key to making this arrangement work is to spread the word early, before your sibs and gal pals max out their credit cards. “Many families limit how much the adults can spend on each other, or they do a ‘Secret Santa’ where everybody buys and receives just one present,” Dr. Newman says. “Another option is to set a policy that the adults buy for their young nieces and nephews, but not each other.” Among friends, there’s always uncertainty about how much to spend -- and fear that your gift will look chintzy. Solve the problem by setting a spending limit in advance. Or suggest an alternative, such as cooking a fabulous meal together or pooling your money and making a charitable donation.

 

Situation:  Changing an established family tradition. 

Solution: It’s the same thing year after year -- Christmas Eve at your mother’s place, New Year’s brunch at your sister’s -- and you’d like to be the host for a change. “You have the right to say, ‘I want to try something different; I want to host the family celebration this year,” Dr. Newman says. Try this approach: First, acknowledge the other person’s feelings while presenting your side: “Mom, I know how much you enjoy having us over, but with our crazy schedules, it would be easier if I could host dinner this year.” Second, encourage her to contribute to the celebration: “It wouldn’t be Christmas without your chocolate cake.” And if your mom balks at giving up hosting duties, suggest that she schedule her gathering on a different day. “Be prepared for a little pushback at first, but remember that families not only adjust to change, but even embrace it,” Dr. Newman says. “More than anything, your parents want to be with you on the holidays.”

Situation: Celebrating when you’re not feeling festive.

Solution: If you’ve been going through a rough patch -- a divorce, a layoff, the loss of a loved one -- the thought of going to holiday parties, concerts and tree-lighting ceremonies may seem overwhelming. The answer: Instead of accepting every invitation, choose one or two that you think you’d enjoy. To the rest, decline with a simple answer: “It was sweet of you to ask me, but I can’t make it” or “I’m sorry, but I already have other plans.” Don’t give a detailed explanation as to why you can’t attend. As Dr. Newman points out, “If you say, ‘I’m not happy this year’ or ‘Things are going badly for me right now,’ you’ll give the host wiggle room to say, ‘Oh, you’ll feel better if you get out and see people.’”

Situation: Trying to please both sides of the family at once.

Solution: Stressed out from racing to both your parents and in-laws’ houses on Christmas? Some boundary-tightening is in order. You and your kids will have a far more pleasant day if you don’t have to fight traffic and chow down two heavy meals to avoid hurting Grandma and Nana’s feelings. “Don’t let yourself be held hostage by the past,” Dr. Newman warns. “On a rotating basis, visit one set of relatives on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day. Or celebrate with one set on Christmas Day and the other during the week.” Stand your ground. After all, you’re an adult now, and it’s up to you to write holiday rules that work for your family!

Games for Building Better Family Bonds

Your typical afternoon probably goes like this: Pick up kids from school; shuttle to soccer game, music class and dance lessons; head to the grocery store; then get back home in time to make dinner. And even though the time you spend with your kids is precious, you probably wouldn’t classify this minivan marathon as quality time.

But who’s to say that everyday experiences can’t turn into special moments? And what better way to infuse laughter and fun than with games that draw out every family member?

“Using this time for fun activities reinforces the idea that you can take pleasure in the mundane parts of life,” says Cynthia Copeland, author of Fun on the Run: 324 Instant Family Activities. “It also teaches kids to make the most of what’s available to them.”

Check out Copeland’s kid-friendly game ideas and create memorable moments in the car, at the market and the family dinner table. 

In the Car
Instead of popping in a DVD, use car time to get kids to observe their surroundings.

  • For short trips Crank up the radio. Pick a common word you’re likely to hear in songs, such as “love” or “time”. As your kids listen, they can announce when they hear the key words, keeping track of how many they hear. The one who racks up the most callouts by the time you reach your destination wins.
  • On a long ride Choose a highway-related category -- such as “semi-trucks,” “red cars,” “fast-food restaurant signs” or “billboards” -- but don’t reveal it to anyone. Next, count out loud each time you spot the object, letting your kids guess the category. The correct guesser takes over by coming up with a new category and starting the game again.

In the Grocery Store
If your kids aren’t old enough to help you find items on your list, these games will keep them entertained, learning and bonding with you.

  • For children old enough to count Engage her in a guessing or number game. Ask her to figure out which items in your cart add up to $10. Have her guess how many people will be in line, how many minutes it will take to get through the checkout or how much is the total amount of the bill. If your child can also read, turn the tables and let her quiz you! Have her read the nutrition label on a box of, say, cereal, and ask you how many grams of protein, fiber and sugar it contains. She’ll get a kick out of being the quizzer and telling you whether you’re right or wrong. (This also opens the door for you to slip in mini-lessons on nutrition.)
  • For toddlers A simple hiding game is enough to keep a little one’s attention. Pick out an item from your list, take it off the shelf and then together, find a place to hide it -- behind boxes or cans -- in another aisle. Throughout your shopping trip, remind your little guy about the secret place that only the two of you know about. If he can talk, ask him questions about it: What color is the box? When do we eat this kind of food? Check back periodically to see if the item is still hidden. Finally, place the item in your cart before you check out.

At the Dinner Table
Besides being fun, a game at mealtime gives you a little extra face time with your kids. “Entertainment is an incentive for them to stay at the table, and inevitably, it opens up the channels of conversation,” says Copeland. You needn’t spend the entire meal playing games; play one each night as a dinner icebreaker, and your kids are more likely to chat and share toward the end of the meal.

Here are a few games to try:

  • Word of mouth A version of the old favorite telephone, this game starts with someone mouthing a sentence to the person across the table about what they did today. That person must then say aloud what they think their table mate said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person gets it wrong, but it doesn’t matter -- each guess usually ends in a good laugh, and you get to hear about some part of a family member’s day you might not have talked about otherwise,” she adds.
  • Creative round robin Copeland likes creative storytelling games because they allow imaginations to run wild and help sharpen your memory -- a bonus for kids and adults. To play, start a story with a general and true phrase, such as “I saw a dog today.” Then go around the table and have each family member contribute, repeating the previous sentences before they add on their own. Encourage everyone to be as silly as they like.
  • Would you rather Go around the table, and have each person ask another family member a question that starts with “Would you rather …?” The questions can be on any topic, serious or not. Even suggest different rounds, such as one that’s goofy (Would you rather have floppy clown feet or big Mickey Mouse ears?), one that’s more serious (Would you rather vacation by the beach or in the mountains?) or one that’s gross (Would you rather eat ants or monkey brains?). Encourage the responder to explain the logic behind the answer, and you’ll get rare insight.

After all, isn’t it better to at least discover why someone prefers monkey brains than only hearing that school was “fine”?

Photo: Corbis Images