What's wrong with this picture: Mom, Dad and the kids, dressed in their finery, relax in front of the fire while they sip holiday punch.
What's wrong is that in reality, Johnny's whining, Suzy's taunting him and Mom and Dad are ready to pitch the whole scene -- kids, tree, gifts and holiday punch -- right out the door.
But Mom and Dad have lots of outlets for their holiday stress -- even seminars and support groups. But what about the kids, who also feel fatigue and strain during the holidays?
"Children are the first place in the family system to bear stress," says Richard Halpin, Ph.D., psychology coordinator of the Forbush School at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "They are the weakest link in the chain and are most likely to translate their stress into behavior."
Even normally well-behaved children often start bouncing off the walls during the holidays.
"Adults may feel overwhelmed by the demands of the holiday season, but we've had years to learn a particular style of coping when we are overtired or too busy," Linda Budd, Ph.D., author of "Livinq with the Active Alert Child," says in the December issue of Workinq Mother.
Understanding the factors that overwhelm children may help in dealing with their stress:
*A break in routine. "You might think it would be a nice treat to let your child off the hook when it comes to practicing the piano or taking the Wednesday night bath because it is, after all, Christmas," says Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, in "Christmas is for Kids," a booklet published by an Pomona, Calif., group called Focus on the Family.
"But this could be upsetting to your child, who loses an important contact point in his life and wonders now if anything goes," Ms. Lawhead says.
Also, parents themselves often change their routines, trying to get more accomplished in less time. Children pick up on their parents' fatigue and often accept it as their own.
"Children count on their parents for comfort and reassurance," says Gail Edelsohn, M.D., a child psychiatrist and assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "It is important to keep routines and individual, special times with your children."
*High expectations. "Often, parents want their children to be perfect and they want these times to be ideal," says Dr. Halpin. "They want [the holidays] to exceed the best of the times they had and to make up for what was missing for them as children."
But perfection isn't the ideal; the goal is to have a joyful time with family and friends.
*Well-meaning adults. Adults may inadvertently create overwhelming excitement in children. As soon as December rolls around, they start saying things such as, "Bet you can't wait" or "What do you want Santa Claus to bring you?"
"But 20 days is an eternity for children," says Billie H. Frazier, Ph.D., a child psychologist and associate professor of Human Development at the University of Maryland. "A better way to approach the holidays is to get a calendar and mark off the days as a family. Also, look for ways to get back to the real significance of the holidays; emphasize giving rather than receiving."
*Unfamiliar people and events. "Let children take the lead in forming relationships with relatives," says Dr. Frazier. "Even children of school age may be put off by Uncle Joe's scary and scraggly beard."
Also, holidays tend to be a time of remembering, sad times as well as good times, and children usually pick up on these nuances. If there has been a sickness, or if someone who usually is there is missing, explain this to children ahead of time, Dr. Edelsohn says. Let them know it's still possible to have a good time with family even though things are different.
So how do parents avoid all these holiday skirmishes?
One way is to talk in advance about events and expectations. "Provide a road map of events. It will be helpful for everyone, especially children," says Dr. Frazier. "Involve them in planning and preparations, such as helping wrap or pick out gifts."
But remember, no long shopping trips for children, the experts advise.
Prepare younger children in advance for any changes in routine, such as a trip, special events or a change in their day care situation. Show pictures of any relatives who might be unfamiliar to them. Let them decide whether they want to visit with Santa, and if so, prepare them for the types of things he is likely to say.
Keep athletic activities in the schedule, particularly for younger children, says Dr. Halpin. They need physical activities to discharge their tensions.
The experts also suggest that parents:
*Reinforce positive behaviors. Often during busy times, parents tend to notice children only when they are misbehaving. "Positive feedback is important, and can help minimize the need for discipline," says Dr. Frazier.
*Maintain routines as much as possible. Try to follow the same bedtime routines and make sure children have their favorite teddy bear or blanket.