My Niece Is Skipping School - and Her Mom Doesn't Care!

Filed under: Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My 13-yr-old niece (my sister's daughter) is starting to skip school a lot and make up excuses not to go, or she will call home and complain about a headache, wanting to go home. There is a lot of negativity in my sister's home (she is having a lot of problems with her 18-year-old son) and my niece is in the middle of all of it. I want to talk to her about what is going on, but I don't know how to get her to open up to me. What are the right questions to ask my niece in order to get to the bottom of what's going on?

Concerned Aunt

Dear Concerned,

I am always touched by questions from readers who write on behalf of a child who they may not be parenting directly, but are nonetheless watching out for. Kudos to you for caring so much about your niece, and reaching out for help.

It does sound like this girl is on a slippery slope and, from what you say, her mother either isn't noticing, or is too overwhelmed with her other problems to care. This is exactly why the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," is so true. While you may not be able to get through to your sister, you do have a chance to become a safe haven and confidante for your niece, which is the first step toward helping her avoid heading into bigger problems. Here's my advice:

• Invite your niece to go out to lunch or on a special outing, choosing something to do together to make your time feel special. It would be great if you could make this something you do on a regular basis, so she gets comfortable spending time with you, and hopefully, leaning on you as a safe and sane guide to help her navigate the challenges in her life.

• Don't pressure her to talk about her problems. Many teens "leak" important information casually, and then clam up or become defensive if they feel that we're interrogating them. Let your conversations wander in and out of different topics, including her home life and school, but also friends, fashion, movies or other things that interest her. She may not open up if she feels that this outing is just an excuse to pry her open to find out why she's skipping school.

• If your niece tells you something important, make comments or ask questions that encourage her to keep talking -- things she would answer with a "Yes", like, "It sounds like your brother's been pretty angry, lately," or "I wonder if you feel safer at home than at school?" Don't rush at her with unwanted advice. Just give her the space to offload and vent her feelings in your caring presence.

• Don't give your niece the impression that you're shocked or angry by what she tells you, or she may feel it's not a good idea to tell you too much. In other words, keep your reactions as low key as possible so she'll know it's safe to keep talking.

Encouraging a teen to open up takes patience, but by showing your niece that you're willing to put in the time, you'll let her know that she can lean on you for guidance. Hopefully her mother will recognize that her daughter needs more real parenting, but, until then, just be a loving and caring presence. If you're careful not to make your sister feel you're trying to replace her, you may even end up in a position to provide her with some much needed support.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.