PERSONAL HEALTH : Office Party Is a Source of Anxiety During Holidays

Holiday depression is not the only emotion being aired from the couch these days. Anxiety over upcoming holiday office parties takes up its fair share of the hour, therapists report. "It's not an uncommon topic," says Marc Schoen, a Los Angeles psychologist on staff at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

What's to fear? Some party invitees worry they will have nothing to talk about besides work, Schoen says. Outsiders accompanying a mate or date fear no one there will talk to them. Employees wonder if their husband, wife or friend will win nods of approval from co-workers. Then, too, Schoen adds, there's always the potential that submerged on-the-job conflict will escalate into open warfare.

"The issues that underlie an office party are somewhat the same as those that underlie a family dinner," claims Irene Goldenberg, a UCLA family psychologist. The potential for conflict is always there, she notes, because it's impossible to get along well with all co-workers or family members. Even so, she adds, we're usually glad we went--even if we're not sure until later.

Why bother going to holiday office parties at all? "Holiday parties help people learn to form relationships," claims Schoen. "Seeing co-workers and bosses in a non-work environment can add dimension and understanding to on-the-job relationships later."

No matter how unfestive a holiday office party might turn out, there are several ways to minimize psychological wear and tear.

* Plan a short stay. "You don't have to remain for five hours," Goldenberg points out.

* Prepare for the party by boning up on current events. One of Schoen's clients, a musician, felt unintelligent about most other topics. A week or so before her office party, she began watching the morning news. "She's great at parties now," he reports.

* Outsiders can seek out other outsiders. Initiate conversation by commenting on the weather or any other innocuous subject.

* Don't feel compelled to create brilliant conversation. So-so will suffice. Office party environments are a lot like elevator milieus, Schoen claims. "Everyone's relieved when someone talks." * Stifle the urge to drink too much alcohol. "People drink when they're feeling sociable and when they're feeling anxious," observes Goldenberg.

Toddlers Don't Always Lose Speech Problems

Contrary to popular thinking, silent 2-year-old toddlers won't necessarily outgrow their language development problems, a Portland researcher reports.

In a comparison study of 36 late-talking toddlers with 42 normal-talking toddlers, Rhea Paul, an associate professor of speech and hearing sciences at Portland State University, found that 41% of children with language delays at age 2 were still slow at age 3. More than half of those kids were also slower in what linguists call receptive language, or understanding, says Paul, who presented her findings recently at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn. meeting in St. Louis.

Paul considered toddlers late talkers if they produced fewer than 10 intelligible words at 18-23 months or fewer than 50 words or no two-word combinations by 24-34 months. She calls those guidelines "an emerging standard" that many language experts use.

On the basis of her trend-setting research, Paul advises parents of slow talkers to insist on a complete audiological assessment, including a test of middle-ear function. Middle-ear fluid or infection can affect hearing. "The child may be hearing sounds, but there may be some frequencies lost," she says.

Late-talking toddlers don't necessarily need costly sessions with speech therapists, says Paul. She suggests a consultation with a speech-language specialist for self-help ideas on language stimulation. Two possibilities: Parents can play games that foster language development or they can enroll their children in preschools that emphasize language skills.

In agreement with Paul's recommendation is Judith Trost-Cardamone, a professor of speech and language pathology at Cal State University Northridge and speech consultant for Children's Hospital, who believes doctors should take parents' concerns seriously. "When a parent says, 'I think Johnny's late in his talking,' I say, 'Let's investigate.' Parents don't look for problems."

Los Angeles Tough on Skin, Survey Finds

Los Angeles was recently voted the fifth toughest city in the country on skin. (Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Salt Lake City copped the first four slots.) The survey, taking into account such environmental factors as sun, pollution, wind and temperature, was conducted by the Collagen Corp., a manufacturer of collagen, a protein found in connective tissue. Three independent physicians and a research firm helped conduct the survey.

The surprise finding: Pollution is actually a skin saver. It works by blocking sunlight that can age the skin. "I don't like pollution, but pollution protects the skin," says Dr. Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills dermatologist and UCLA clinical assistant professor of dermatology and medicine who helped conduct the survey. But it doesn't mean you can safely skip sunscreen, he adds.

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