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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I'm at my wit's end. My cousin "Sheila" and I are very close. She lives around the corner and comes over almost daily to play with my 20-month-old daughter, "Megan." The problem is, Sheila says unkind things about Megan's behavior, such as, "Evidently those child-rearing books you read haven't worked," or, "If you can't control her at 20 months, how will you control her when she's a teen-ager?" The worst is, "You know, I have a love/hate relationship with Megan -- I really love her, but after a while I can't stand being around her."

Megan likes to squeal. She sometimes cries a little too loudly and doesn't always want to share her toys, but my husband and I try to discipline her. The rest of our friends and family members think she is well-behaved, and many of them think the problem is with Sheila. They say they've seen her encourage Megan to act wildly just to see what my husband and I would do.

I love my cousin, and Megan loves her, too. However, I'm not sure whether or not I should put some distance between us. Sheila is very sensitive, and the last time I spoke to her about this, she wouldn't talk to me for a week. Megan is attached to Sheila, and I am not sure I should jeopardize their relationship. Please help. -- MEGAN'S MOM IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR MOM: Something is wrong with an adult who derives pleasure from getting a child in trouble. If it continues, your daughter will never know where she stands with this immature and somewhat sadistic individual.

Tell Sheila to stop popping in and out of your home dispensing unkind and unasked-for observations about your child-rearing ability. If she wants to be part of your daughter's life, she should start giving Megan "unconditional love" -- or stay home.

DEAR ABBY: I'm a 26-year-old former college soccer player, now coaching a girls' high school team in California. This is my first coaching job, and for some reason, some of the girls on the team are flirting with me and being very suggestive.

When a girl gives me "that look," I am both troubled and excited at the same time. I want to maintain my professional coaching relationship, but it's becoming very difficult. Do you or any of your readers have any suggestions? I have heard about coaches becoming involved with the athletes. -- TEMPTED

DEAR TEMPTED: If I were you, I'd keep one eye on the ball, the other on the scoreboard, and if one of these young women makes another pass, tell her she's out of bounds and if it happens again, she'll be benched and reported to the principal.

If the temptation is too much for you, I recommend a cold shower and reassignment to a boys' soccer team. These girls are minors, and you are in a position of trust and authority. Involvement with a student could destroy the rest of your professional life.

DEAR ABBY: What is the correct time limit to send out a thank-you note? Is a month sufficient? I am talking about holiday gifts. Thanks! -- RUNNING BEHIND IN ST. CHARLES, LA.

DEAR RUNNING BEHIND: The sooner the better! Certainly no later than a month. And that goes for all gifts -- so get moving!

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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