Holiday stress is a well-known phenomenon that gets a great deal of attention every year. Most health experts will concede that for some individuals, the holidays are a difficult time.

Simon Keochakian, a counselor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says that even families can be victims of the winter holiday stress, warning that "the holidays can be a family's most difficult time."Just as with individuals, families are expected to look forward to Christmas with cheer and warm feelings. But somewhere along the line, someone's feelings can get stepped on.

Keochakian says unrealistic expectations are a big part of the problem. "By building up the holidays to be more than they are, we set ourselves up for disappointment," he said.

There are ways for families to cope with holiday stress, said Keochakian, the associate director for clinical services at the college's Center for Counseling and Academic Development.

Any pre-existing family problems tend to get aggravated by the hustle and bustle that accompany holiday shopping and family gatherings, said Keochakian, so it's a good idea to keep an eye out for this kind of trouble.

"A lot of trouble can be avoided if you simply plan ahead," he said.

College students may have special problems. In school, they learn to become independent, making their own decisions about relationships and careers. Keochakian calls them "emerging adults."

When they come home for the holidays, "they tend to fall into the old roles," he said. "Mom does the laundry, and they are expected to follow rules laid down by parents."

The conflict can lead to confusion, and the anger gets passed back and forth.

Both sides need to make adjustments and should be ready to make concessions, said Keochakian. Parents should encourage children to be independent and "at least entertain the possibility that what their child is saying or doing is valid."

Conversely, "emerging adults" must recognize that they have responsibilities, too. "There is a certain sanctity of the home," said Keochakian. "There are certain guidelines and responsibilities for each person who lives there.

"College students have to recognize that they are no longer integral, everyday parts of the family. They're visitors now.

Visiting in-laws can bring its own set of problems. For example, take the situation of a married couple visiting the husband's mother.

"Within minutes, the wife gets to see her husband change from a confident, assertive, successful spouse into a submissive child," said Keochakian. "This can be terribly disconcerting to the wife. Your spouse has changed into someone you don't even know."

One way of avoiding potential trouble is to prearrange an escape signal, he said. For example, tugging on an earlobe could be a sign that a blowup is near and it's time to leave.

Whatever the situation, Keochakian said it's essential to have the groundwork beforehand. "Imagine a worst-case scenario and make arrangements for dealing with it," he said.

"If a family member tends to drink and become obstreperous by the end of the day, make plans in advance to visit a friend or to take a walk."

He also cautioned that the holidays are not the time to drop a bombshell on the family.

College students should not "go home and tell your parents that you've decided to quit school or that you're not going to be a doctor after all. Pick a less-charged time to announce dramatic changes in your life plans."

In some cases, Keochakian said, children and parents may have irreconcilable differences. If so, they should recognize that the time they spend together will be tolerable, at best.

"Learn to recognize that compromises are essential to happy relationships," he said. "Let go of rigid positions. Remember that nothing is ever perfect."