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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My sister "Tricia's" daughters, ages 5 and 7, are my only nieces. A few weeks ago, I sent the 7-year-old a gift for her birthday. When I didn't get a response, I called my sister to ask if it had arrived. Tricia said, "Oh, yeah, we got it. We've been busy and so we didn't open it. We'll get to it someday." I felt terrible knowing my niece didn't get the gift on her birthday and didn't know I had remembered her.

I have since learned that my nieces weren't given the gifts I sent last Christmas, either, which explains why I didn't receive thank-you notes. Tricia told me her girls get lots of presents so she limits when they can have them. She gives them as rewards or saves them for rainy days.

The younger daughter's birthday is coming up, and now I'm wondering what to do. I don't want to spend the time or money picking out something she may never see. Should I just send a card? Or call to wish her a happy birthday?

My sister is generous with my kids. They open the gifts right away and send thank-you notes. How do I reciprocate? -- HURT IN SAN FRANCISCO

DEAR HURT: By intercepting your gifts and presenting them as "rewards" or "saving them for a rainy day," your sister is defeating their purpose and may be taking the credit that should be going to you. Your nieces should absolutely know that you think of them on their birthdays and other holidays.

By all means call them and send cards. And start contributing to a college fund for them. Although they may not appreciate right now what a thoughtful gift you are giving them, I guarantee they will in the future.

DEAR ABBY: I have a good relationship with my 84-year-old mother, but it's difficult to spend time with her because during the past year she has started hitting me. She does not appear to be angry when she does it. She'll do it if I say something she thinks is funny, when I do something nice or for no reason at all.

It hurts me physically and emotionally when she hits me. I have asked her repeatedly to please not do it, but she persists. I wasn't abused as a child, so I don't understand what's going on. Any ideas? -- BRUISED IN SPRINGFIELD

DEAR BRUISED: I have a suspicion. I have written before that any significant change in a senior's behavior or personality should be reported to his or her doctor. Your mother may need to be physically and neurologically evaluated because it's possible that she doesn't remember that you have asked her not to hit you. My advice is to have your mother checked out, and if I'm right, you have my sympathy.

DEAR ABBY: My daughter is divorced from my grandson "Cody's" father, "Mitch." Cody is only 8, and when Mitch makes plans with him and then doesn't show up or even bother to call, of course Cody is sad.

I can't stand to see my grandson hurt over and over again. How can I help him get through these difficult times? -- PROTECTIVE NANA IN RHODE ISLAND

DEAR PROTECTIVE NANA: It isn't possible to shield your grandson entirely from his father's neglect. However, you might lessen his disappointment by making alternative plans to do something with him if his father is a no-show. And if Cody has uncles, a grandfather or other male influences in his life, perhaps they could step up to the plate on some of those occasions when his father strikes out.

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $6 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby -- Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)