IN ANY STRESSFUL situation, there are things that people involved can do to ease the tension. So it is with family tensions stemming from the Persian Gulf war.
Here are some suggestions for making life on the home front easier -- at dinner time as well as throughout the day:
* Reduce aggravation. Habits or activities -- dropping clothes on the floor or tying up the phone, for instance -- that normally disturb parents are bound to genuinely upset them if they are anxious about the war. Toni Ungaretti, a child development specialist, suggests that youngsters can help by doing whatever they can "so their parents are less aggravated."
* Share time. Older children can give their parents time to watch the evening news or read a newspaper by doing early evening chores, such as cooking or washing dishes, for them. These same youngsters can take care of younger siblings, also to give mom and dad a break.
* Do your jobs. Youngsters are less anxious when they have some control over what's happening in their lives, says Ungaretti. Therefore, children should do the jobs that are theirs -- homework, chores, sports practice -- just as the soldiers and pilots in the Middle East have their appointed duties.
* Delay news. If keeping up with news of the war adds stress to your evening, it might be wise to put that off until the children are in bed. Use your VCR to tape televised reports you might want to see and hang onto the newspaper to read later. "This is protection for a parent," suggests Janice Ellis, director of Child's World at Villa Julie College. "What do you do if you find out something terrible has happened" while you're watching with your child?
* Limit children's exposure. How much war information to share with children is perplexing, says Joseph Procaccini, an education professor at Loyola College. "I'm not sure we should let them watch without being available." Ellis agrees: "It's necessary for an adult to be there with a child."
Even with adults present, how much children need to see and know depends on their age and personality. Ellis doesn't think preschoolers need to see the war at all. Procaccini says even much older children need limits. "War is a traumatic, terrible thing. To be glued to TV, watching this all the time, is very depressing," he says.
* Control conversations. Adults do need to talk about the war, but it is best not to talk about it or about possible terrorism within earshot of young children. Overhearing such conversations can fuel their fears.
* Talk as a family. Families with older children might find it useful to set aside a time -- over the newspaper, for instance -- to talk about the war. Some children thrive on information; some shrink from it.
* Take children's cues. Some children know when they've seen or heard enough about war. "It gets to be too much for them," says Ellis. If a parent gets these signals, he should heed them.
* Be prepared. Children of all ages are bound to ask questions about this war. Ellis says parents should try to anticipate these questions so they are not caught off guard.
* Have some fun. Children need to know they can laugh and have a good time without feeling unpatriotic or disloyal to the troops in the Middle East, Ellis says. Adults are their best models in this.