Unhappy boy grabbing mom's legs(Photo: Stephanie Rausser)

I was trying to do two things at once -- cook (in the kitchen) while deciphering some paperwork (in the next room). I'd been interrupted a thousand times with requests for snacks, shrieks over spilled paint water, questions about what squirrels like to eat, and arguments over whether clouds could be blue and flowers could be green. And did I mention that a ruptured disk in my back was throbbing even worse than my head?

Still, nothing can excuse my behavior that afternoon.

I erupted like Mount Momsuvius: "Enough! Get out! Stop bothering me!" The look on my daughters' faces said it all. The 2-year-old's eyes widened. The 4-year-old furrowed her brow and jabbed her thumb between her lips. Immediately I wished I could stuff the hot-lava words back into my mouth. They certainly hadn't come from my heart, or my brain.

We all say the wrong thing sometimes, leaving our kids feeling hurt, angry, or confused. Read on for some of the most common verbal missteps moms and dads make, and kinder, gentler alternatives.

"Leave Me Alone!"

A parent who doesn't crave an occasional break is a saint, a martyr, or someone who's so overdue for some time alone she's forgotten the benefits of recharging. Trouble is, when you routinely tell your kids, "Don't bother me" or "I'm busy," they internalize that message, says Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies, in Huntsville, Arkansas. "They begin to think there's no point in talking to you because you're always brushing them off." If you set up that pattern when your children are small, then they may be less likely to tell you things as they get older.

From infancy, kids should get in the habit of seeing their parents take time for themselves. Use pressure-release valves -- whether signing up with a babysitting co-op, trading off childcare with your partner or a friend, or even parking your child in front of a video so that you can have half an hour to relax and regroup.

At those times when you're preoccupied (or overstressed, as I was when I exploded at my girls), set up some parameters in advance. I might have said, "Mom has to finish this one thing, so I need you to paint quietly for a few minutes. When I'm done, we'll go outside."

Just be realistic. A toddler and a preschooler aren't likely to amuse themselves for a whole hour.