HOLIDAYS ARE a time for families to be together. Or so parents think. Children may have different ideas -- as my 19-year-old stepdaughter Magin made graphically clear to my wife and me a few weeks ago. Magin announced that when she got home from college she was going to spend five days before Christmas at her dad's empty apartment while he was away at his girlfriend's. This was a bit disconcerting to my wife, who was born and raised in London and is fanatical about holding onto the traditions of the English Christmases she remembers.

The holiday period that runs from Thanksgiving to New Years holds up a mirror to families. Whatever reflection we see, one thing is certain: it's more difficult than ever for families to be truly together at holiday time -- or at any other time of the year.

"Parents want to recapture the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods-to-grandmother's-house kind of Christmas they see in the ads," says Richard Epstein, a Bethesda psychiatrist. "But when haven't got the familiarity that comes from day-to-day living in an extended family, holidays turn into a big show where everyone gets nervous. The kids feel like they are being used as props in a family drama. They are like furniture and glassware that has to be perfect for the visit," says Epstein.

"My mother gets so flipped out if her parents come for the holidays, she starts yelling at everyone two weeks in advance," says a girl in my English class at T.C. Williams High School. "I have to sleep in the basement, and my grandmother sleeps in my room. It has to be spotless. It's like my mom is reverting to her childhood. The last visit she was a wreck worrying about what my grandmother would think of my 13-year-old brother's pierced ear." (It turned out she didn't care, though she thought he needed a haircut.)

"My family never eats breakfast together during the year, but every morning when my grandmother is visiting, we all have to get up early and have a big breakfast of bacon and eggs because that's my grandmother's way," says senior Katherine Sinclair.

"The first words out of grandmother's mouth one Thanksgiving were: 'I need emergency medical care,' and it got worse from there," says one student.

"American families seem so isolated," says Ali Rashidi, who five years ago brought his wife and two daughters here from Iran. "In Iran you have almost daily touch with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. You lived close to each other and were coming and going every day. You looked inside the family for support and entertainment. Here it seems as if TV personalities are the extended families. Americans talk about TV personalities as if they were family members or dear friends," says Rashidi, a writer and economics professor.

Whether or not one agrees with Rashidi, the media has profoundly altered our ability to communicate. "Thanksgiving dinner meant so much to my mom this year -- especially since I'm going to be going away to college in the fall," says a senior girl. "She was trying to be so formal and have it be a 'family together time.' During the meal my Dad's main concern was that the Redskins were losing to Dallas; he had left the TV on in the other room and worried about the game throughout the meal."

Where are the man's priorities? For that matter, where are my own? I left my wife at a delightful Christmas party last Sunday to rush home for the kick-off of the Miami-Buffalo game. During the game an ad for the Detroit Pistons-Chicago Bulls Christmas Day contest promised: "This Christmas, Isaiah and Air -- A Christmas Day You Won't Forget." Ah, tradition.

Neil Postman, chairman of communication arts at New York University, says that "When TV viewers do talk, it's about the program, not about their own feelings and experiences." Postman notes that the majority of families now have two or more TVs in the home. "There's very little negotiation on what the family will watch together. Family members can go off and watch whatever they want on 'their' sets. On holidays many families are more together through the telephone or Hallmark cards than through actual presence," says Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Television isn't the only medium reducing family communication. "The whole house is wired. Kids have Sony Walkmans, stereos, CD players. The house has become an entertainment center, a fragmented one, where everyone is plugged into their own media," says Postman.

One bright senior told me that in her bedroom she has two Walkmans, a 13" TV, a pocket TV, a VCR and a stereo. In the rest of the house there are four more TVs and nine telephones. The girl lives alone with her parents.

Even at family holidays, "everyone wants to be entertained," says Pat Smith, a college financial aid adviser at T.C. Williams. "Kids go around the house with Walkmans, disconnected to the people they are living with. I can remember when whole families would do the dishes together and talk. That's a thing of the past with dishwashers. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for communication."

When kids do emerge from their multi-media cocoons, they often escape to the more comforting company of their peers. "On Thanksgiving I went out to get a bottle of milk to get out of the house. I drove around with a friend and the milk for 2 hours," says senior Juliet Wilson.

"For many kids, the holidays are a time to be with friends more than with families. For adolescents, peer groups are providing the time for each other and the intimacy and other emotional necessities that the family used to provide," says Richard Ryan, president of a Boston-based counseling center, who works with adolescents throughout the country.

Parents complain that their children don't spend enough time with them, but many parents may be partly to blame.

"My mom feels that I am too dedicated to my friends -- that I don't do enough for my family. 'What can you do with your friends that you can't do home?' " says a girl who spends more of her free time chatting with friends in a 7-Eleven parking lot than her mother would like. "My mom," she complains, "doesn't understand that with my friends I can have a nice long intimate chat about life; I can feel comfortable. Parents are the biggest source of stress. I'm always trying to please my mom and dad, but no matter what I do it doesn't work. I got a big award at school and my parents didn't say a word. And then they wonder why I would rather be with my friends. It's my friends that give me my confidence and self-esteem, not my parents."

"My parents want me to be part of the conversation at dinner, and then I will ask a simple question and my dad will tell me I'm ignorant. My dad thinks I should automatically know Congressman So-and-so who he has met with that afternoon. But he shows no interest in my friends or my life. I've just learned not to ask him questions," says the teenage child of a lobbyist. When children are young, parents tend to spend more time with them, not just at holidays but throughout the year. But in the modern middle-class family, that time tends to be heavily programmed as parents rush their kids from soccer games to Boy Scouts to music lessons. "Parents and kids are living frenetic lives focused on activities, schedules and competition," says Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria's Agudas Achim synagogue. "We are producing anxious, driven kids who are out of harmony with themselves and their families."

By the time children become teenagers -- and have become emancipated by access to a car -- both parents and children are likely to be preoccupied with their own pursuits.

"These kids have pulled away so early. Once they get their license they are gone," says Pat Smith, whose two children are in college. "Parents of younger kids may complain about driving all over in car pools, but when you are driving the kids you have some control; you can listen to their conversations and find out what is going on with their friends."

"I don't see my parents enough to talk to them very much. I get up at 6:00 for school and when I go out the door I wake up my mom," says senior Julie Miller. "After school I work from 2:30 until 6:00. I go home, change, grab a bagel and go to my gymnastics or dance or Italian classes four nights a week. I get home at 10:00, do my homework and go to sleep. On weekends I'm out with my friends."

But kids also complain when parents insist they be together as a family, an effort that some teenagers view as artificial.

"My mom is always trying to force 'quality time' on me and my sister, says a T.C. senior. "Over Thanksgiving she got us to all go shopping together; we spent the whole time fighting. You can't make quality time; it happens when you least expect it."

David Sheldon, former headmaster of Middlesex School in New Hampshire, remembers his students "going off on vacations sailing or skiing. They and their parents were so busy doing things that it kept them from being close. Christmas was especially bad. They'd return to school saying 'I'm so glad to be back.' It was such a terrible burden for them to be with their parents when everything was supposed to be perfect and invariably wasn't."

"Quality time is the myth created by parents who put their individual work and social life ahead of their family. When that happens the children are the first to suffer," says Richard Ryan. "It's like the divorced father who picks up his son and says 'I have you two hours Thursday and we are going to have a great time.' It's trying to force an emotional state on a child." Divorce causes special strains at holiday time. Laura Bayer (T.C. '85) says that her parents' divorce "wreaked havoc, especially around the holidays. I can remember once having to eat three Thanksgiving meals to please everyone. Christmas suddenly became diminished. We only got a few presents because of the changed financial situation. The surest way for a woman to fall into poverty in this country is to get divorced. Mothers get completely stressed out because they want Christmas to be like it used to be; the more you try to keep it that way the worse it gets. You have to recreate your own traditions all over again," says Bayer, a recent NYU graduate.

But T.C. guidance director Jim McClure says that "fathers are the ones getting left out of the holidays. Part of it is due to the mother's scorn, but also kids are reluctant to leave their mothers on holidays."

Either way it's the kids who pay. "When the family has been wounded by a divorce, the holiday visit becomes an attempt to repair the sense of injury suffered by the disintegration of the marriage," says psychiatrist Richard Epstein. "They look at the kids and say 'why can't you behave; it will all be wonderful.' But the kids are upset because their mom and dad aren't together. If the parents are remarried, any form of togetherness with the new family can bring memories of the lost marriage. The bad feelings often outweigh the good ones."

"Since the divorce, my brother and I alternate each Christmas between our parents. But last year each one wanted to have us. They fought for two months over it, cursing each other on the phone, bad mouthing each other's parents. They were locked in a power play and not even thinking of us. Finally they left it up to us to decide. That's very hard because you feel guilty no matter which choice you make. Sometimes I feel like I am holding the family together -- that I am making Christmas for everyone but myself," says a very mature senior who looked sad when she talked about Christmas.

"I only met my dad once; he lives in D.C. Around Christmas I used to always think about him. I had this fantasy that he would ring the doorbell and be standing there with a present for me or that he'd at least send me a card. Now I've just learned to block myself off," says one strapping six-foot-two senior. One of my students from a well-off family spent Christmas working 14 hours at a hotel pool and then went to a friend's home. His dad and his stepmother went to visit her parents in the Midwest. "I just wasn't invited. With all the presents and my half sister there probably wasn't enough room for me in the car. The Christmas cards that come to the house are addressed to my father, stepmother and half sister. My name isn't on them."

Still, even the most distressed teenagers reach out to home at the holidays. Ann Dineen, director of This Way House, a shelter for teenagers, says that during the holidays business is way down. "Kids try to get back to their families. They are holding onto the last hope that everything will be okay, that their parents will give them attention. After Christmas the crises come again; kids are disappointed and angry. In January business reaches its high point," says Dineen.

"The kids we see really want their parents; they are crying out for adult attention and direction," Dineen adds. "We have had kids who have never had a birthday cake. Others have hardly ever sat down to eat dinner with an adult. They are so happy about being able to sit down to a dinner with counselors. They try to put up a strong, tough front, but they are bleeding inside. Underneath the toughest of them is a child who wants to be nutured and loved."

For some normally close families, this Christmas will have unaccustomed pain. This holiday season, Kathryn St. Clair's 20-year-old brother Colin is aboard the amphibious assault ship Tarawa, due to arrive in the Persian Gulf in about two weeks. "My brother and I used to always decorate the tree together and help prepare the family meal. We would open our presents at home and then drive to my grandmother's in Fredericksburg," Kathryn remembers. "This just isn't Christmas to me."

But even families less close than the St. Clairs have traditions that their children may value more than the parents think. "Kids grumbling about parents' traditions is just part of the territory, says John Meeks, a psychiatrist who works with adolescents. "Parents may not get a lot of gratitude, but if they allow traditions to lapse, it backfires."

Rabbi Moline says that "the best times for families often come after parents have worked so hard at creating a routine or tradition that it becomes a natural part of the rhythm of family life." Every Friday evening for the beginning of Shabbat, Moline's family has a big meal with challah, a traditional egg bread. One Tuesday, Moline's wife had baked challah for visiting friends. His 8-year-old daughter walked in the house and said "it smells like Friday." Moline says of all the stories he tells his congregation, that one hits home the most. "We are desperate for traditions that bring us together as loving members of a family," says Moline. So parents have to hang in there, says family therapist Peggy Treadwell. "When parents get all intense and think it is the end of the world if kids don't participate at this exact time in this exact holiday ritual, they need to step back and examine their own need for togetherness and how that need is tied to memories of past Christmases in their own families. The purpose of the family should be to enjoy each other. It's time for a lot of parents to get off kids' backs. They would be amazed what their children can do when that happens."

"Though they'd never admit it, kids would be disappointed if their parents didn't try to keep a hold on them," adds Meeks. "It may seem like a one-sided deal for parents because the kids aren't going to see it as a big favor when they ask them to spend more time home. It's comforting to have parents around the house even if there isn't much talk going on. A kid can't make a break from home if he is not wanted there. He just feels like he is being thrown out. If there is a grip on your shirttail, if you feel you're supported, it's easier to leave and grow up."

(P.S. Magin gave up her plan to stay alone and came home for the holidays.)

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.