DEAR HARRIETTE: After my mother died, my niece began to act out terribly. Last year she hardly went to school, although her mother and I didn't know. A truant officer came to the house, and it almost became a legal matter. My niece is repeating her grade this year because she failed everything last year. We are so worried about her. She's a teenager, and she is belligerent, headstrong and disrespectful. How can we support her so that she wakes up and sees how she is living her life? -- Worried Uncle, Queens, N.Y.
DEAR WORRIED UNCLE: Your niece needs professional help to deal with her grief and to help guide her to healthy action. Suggest to your sister that she find a professional therapist who can help your niece open up about her life.
Your sister should inform her daughter's guidance counselor of her daughter's situation so that the counselor can track her progress. Your niece probably won't like being policed a bit, but she needs it until she develops healthy practices on her own.
You and your sister, as well as any other interested and involved adults, should support your niece by keep her engaged by helping with her homework and talking to her about her life.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My 8-year-old came home the other day telling me that she knew what sex was. She proceeded to tell me that it's a form of love and that it's how you make babies. Then we were watching the news and she heard the term "rape." She asked me what that was. I completely froze.
How do you explain such a thing to a child who is just learning the basics about sexuality? It is really confusing to me. -- At a Loss, Chicago
DEAR AT A LOSS: Though it seems very young, your daughter may be ready to learn the basics about sex and sexual violation. Unfortunately, children are sometimes victims of abuse as they also are becoming curious about their bodies.
In simple terms, you can explain to your daughter that babies are created when an egg and a sperm meet, and that the sperm lives in the man and the egg lives in the woman. Explain that the man typically delivers the sperm by putting his penis in the woman's vagina. Yes, you need to say it. And explain that it is an act of love for adults who are committed to each other. You probably will get a "yuck," but your daughter will remember.
As for rape, you need to explain that it is an act of violence and a crime when someone forces a person to commit the sex act. It is mean, painful and against all the rules. When it is rape, it is not an act of love.
There are many books that can support you, from religiously based texts to books reflecting different family makeups. Do some research to find the best book for you.