'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house little Jane was screaming for attention while brother Johnny acted a louse. They were running, fighting, demanding, crying.
They were, in fact, acting like a lot of other kids who become crabby at Christmas. And with good reason, according to the child care experts.
"As a general rule, I have observed that the excitement of the holidays tends to overstimulate children," said Don East, a psychologist for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
In some children the holidays even can cause "high anxiety," said Dean Smith, a marriage and family therapist and director of the American Institute of Family Relations in Tustin.
Among the chief reasons the experts cite: Children may be mirroring the stresses their parents are feeling. They're reacting to all the holiday hoopla, which begins earlier every year. They're anticipating the gifts they'll receive. Perhaps consuming extra sweets. And some are struggling with their feelings living in one-parent families separated by divorce.
"Generally speaking," said Karen Rowley, a director of UC Irvine's Children's Center, "children begin to demonstrate more disruptive behavior starting right after Thanksgiving. They are more testy. There is more talking back and there is more belligerent behavior."
Some children are reacting to their parents' pressures brought on by Christmas shopping and entertaining or the panic of a money crunch. "Parents are so keyed up . . . that the kids react to it. They are testy."
The consumption of extra sweets and the excitement of waiting for the big day also play a big factor, Smith and others said. "Children are anticipating what they are going to get for Christmas," he said. "Will they get what they really want? My theory is that the anticipation creates some hyperactivity in children, but if I succeed in getting their parents to get them off sugar, they mellow down tremendously."
Parent Chris Markstrum of Yorba Linda, shopping recently at Brea Mall, agreed about the effect of anticipation on her children's behavior, especially her 4-year-old son. He exhibited more signs of being hyper because of the holidays than her 6- and 2-year-old boys.
"He is hyper anyway, but I think the anticipation is adding to it," Markstrum said. "He wants decorations for his room, and we tell him if he can follow the rules like staying close to Mom while shopping, he can have them, but he can't follow through."
The focus on Santa Claus can also add to some children's stress when parents use him as a weapon for good behavior, Rowley said.
She said some children she oversees are victims of what she calls the "double whammy."
"Our parents are students here (UC Irvine). They are not only keyed up from Christmas shopping, but they are also keyed up because they are facing final examinations. That is a lot of stress for the parents to be under, and their children pick up on it."
Has Own Example
Rowley, who cares for children ages 5 through 12 at the UCI center, speaks not only from professional experience but from personal experience as well. She is the mother of a 4-year-old son who, she said, has fallen victim to holiday hype.
"The closer it gets to Christmas, the worse it gets," she said with a good-natured chuckle. And after the holidays, she said, her son and children at the center usually turn their grumpiest.
"They have the post Christmas letdown. They are disappointed that there is no more to come. It is an anticlimax, a depression that parents also go through."
After about one or two weeks, Rowley said, children's behavior begins to balance out and eventually returns to whatever was considered normal.
Jo Johnson, a social worker at Newport Beach's Child Guidance Center, said the post-Christmas slump is the most difficult time for the already troubled children with whom she has contact. "Right after Christmas we get more phone calls here. That is when the kids are disappointed."
If the parents are divorced and one didn't show up or if the children did not get the gift they wanted, they may become depressed, Johnson said. "The calls come in because Christmas Day didn't go well."
A director of an Orange County child care center said the center's policy of "keying down" the Christmas season helps keep children calm. "Christmas is not a real crazy time here," said Gwen Morgan-Beazell, a director of Santa Ana's Rancho Santiago College Children's Center. "We are going to have a party, but we try to emphasize giving instead of getting."
Morgan-Beazell said that most of the children she is in charge of come from low-income families where parents may not have a lot of money to spend on gifts. "We do not do a lot of asking, 'What do you want for Christmas?"'