The picture-perfect holiday season

peopled by individuals who are generous, smiling and genuinely happy - has a flip side.

When the gladness of the season meets its sidekick, stress, domestic violence, crime and frustration rise significantly in the month between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.Children are frequently victims as parents take out frustration, anger and even sadness on them, according to the executive director of the Family Support Centers. But abuse can be prevented if parents will admit they need help and take a little time out for respite.

"Several things happen during the holidays," said Dr. Jayne Wolfe, who directs the centers. "There's the stress of shopping and whatever else people do during this season. And if you're stressed anyway it can add enough more stress so that people lash out both physically and verbally."

Parents who cannot provide presents for their children and are deeply saddened by that inability sometimes turn the pain into anger directed at the very children for whom they would like to provide.

Divorced families, she said, frequently attempt reconciliations - or at least truces - during the holidays and that increases pressure. Sometimes divorced parents engage in tug of wars over who gets the kids. Other times, an absentee father feels like he should come home for a few days during the holidays. Any of these situations can light the fuse on abuse.

The Family Support Center has two 24-hour-a-day crisis respite centers to help families prevent abuse. Parents who are in crisis can drop children off at the center and take a little "time out" to regain control. The centers, at 2020 Lake St. in Sugar House and 75 W. Center St. in Midvale, are operated overnight by houseparents and can handle up to eight children 10 years old and younger at a time.

The centers are not a baby-sitting facility, although Wolfe said it could "happen to us one time with any one family because we don't ask a lot of questions the first time."

On the second and third visit, however, staff members encourage the parent to get counseling, either at the center or elsewhere. They also ask where the parents will be in case of a problem, and if the parents seem vague (as if they're planning on a night at the movies or shopping), the center sets very tight limits on how long children can stay.

The staff also offers crisis counseling if a family needs or wants it.

The centers typically have three to five children at a time. Besides offering crisis intervention and a safe harbor for the children, the center also offers classes on basic parenting skills, what to expect from a child at different developmental stages, stress management and family and individual counseling. A sex abuse unit in the center provides assessment, treatment and information on prevention.

For more information call the center in Sugar House, 487-7500, or in Midvale, 255-6881.