Scapegoating stories always make good headlines. We read with fascination of apparently happy, laughing, well-fed families who are discovered to have, chained in an upstairs room, a wretched child who lives on bread and water and is the object of scorn and ridicule when it emerges.

The reason these tales are so gripping is that the situation does seem

to ring bells, even if very faint, with most people who come from big families. Parents - and siblings - have 'favourites'. Often, like Rachel, who wrote in last week, they have 'least favourites'.

Her problem was that she realised that, along with most of the rest of the family, she disliked her third child, a daughter. What could she do?

Wait, said some. 'Eileen', the mother of an unwanted third child who arrived much later than the rest, wrote: 'He was impossible and exhausting. It was difficult even to like him. We seemed to have nothing in common. Now my doted-upon middle child has drifted away - and I'm not sure I even like him any more - but my unwanted baby is a dishy, chunky 22-year-old, a loving son and constant delight.'

But - don't wait, advocated those who'd been on the receiving end of scapegoating behaviour. They advocated action in the shape of counselling, family therapy, whatever, as soon as possible.

Shena wrote that she was 'shocked by the cruelty in the letter from Rachel. I am also a third child and second daughter and I was aware that my parents found me difficult. Rachel should act fast by apologising to her daughter for spending 12 years hating her, and start caring for her - or be prepared for very hard work if she doesn't want that hatred coming back to her either directly (which would be healthier for the child) or in the form of her child's learnt self-hatred.'

An anonymous reader wrote that Rachel's letter 'has literally kept me awake many of the nights since reading it, and has been the catalyst for my regular nightmares to be more vivid. Why? Becuse I myself am a 35-year- old 'hated' and wounded adult-child.'

Why do parents tend to favour some children rather than others? Is it because some children are innately lovable and some aren't? No, says Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and writer. 'Children don't come into the world with fully formed characters to which we respond. And, anyway, we all know of children who we would find completely unlovable but somehow their parents manage to love them very much.'

Recent research, she says, has shown that how a mother views her baby depends a lot on her own self-image. Mothers lacking in confidence with low self-esteem see their babies as 'problem' babies; confident mothers don't, even if, in reality, their babies cry more.

'And the reason that other members of the family dislike the child, too, is that the child is aware of being picked on and feels frightened and alone, angry, jealous and hurt. Naturally, as a result, the child doesn't behave in an adorable way, and since it can't take its anger out on its mother, it picks on siblings, who then react accordingly.'

Tim Kahn, of Parent Network, feels Rachel's family has got stuck into roles. If Rachel can change her role, he feels, then the child will be able to change hers and be able to feel better about herself. 'Rachel should try to act in a loving way, even if she doesn't feel it. It's not pretence. Trying to act like a loving parent is in itself a sign of love. If the child asks what's going on, perhaps she could say: 'For some reason I've had negative feelings towards you and I want to build up the love between us again'. That way it becomes an act that involves co-operation.'

'Annette' wrote that 'a child within the family can become the focus for all the bad feelings that each family member has about themselves, or the dislikes of the other members. I believe Rachel loves her daughter. She has been honest and brave in admitting her feelings and by identifying them, and she's part of the way towards improving her relationship. I have often felt guilty that I feel closer to my younger son rather than the elder, but I try to look for qualities in him that I do like and capitalise on these. My eldest son is kind and artistic, and when these qualities are displayed I give him all the good feelings I have.'

Given Rachel's situation, then, the best remedy is for her to make a list of all her child's good and bad points. Then make a list of her own good and bad points, and those of her siblings and parents. Are any of them the same? If so, could her child be carrying the blame for someone else's faults - particularly her own? Rachel should remember that while it is extremely difficult to change anyone else's behaviour, it is possible to change her own. If she can try to look at her daughter from a different angle, she may find all kinds of light bits lurking in the dark.

Parent Network (071-485 8535) is a national organisation that runs support and education groups for parents.

Dear Virginia,

I have been married for 20 years and have three children, aged 13, eight and six. Six months ago I discovered my husband was having an affair with our former au pair, a Swedish woman of 26 - 18 years his junior. We had several months of counselling until it emerged that he is still seeing her.

He doesn't want a divorce, just a little bit of freedom - a flat in London and trips to see his girlfriend when he wants. Family and friends urge me to make a quick break, but I have never worked and don't look forward to a lonely old age. The trouble is I still love him. In my darker moments I wonder whether I should just put up with the mistress in the hope that it is just part of a mid-life crisis that might blow over.

Yours sincerely, Charlotte

Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB (fax: 071- 956 1739) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas that you would like to share with readers, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.