DEAR ABBY: I am a divorced and remarried man with two teenage daughters. My ex-wife has custody of my girls one state away. I see them as often as time and the courts allow: two months during the summer, a week during winter break, rotating Thanksgivings, etc.

Both of my daughters are failing miserably in school, but I am most concerned about my younger daughter. She is 13 and is rebelling badly. I recently spoke with the principal at her school and was told she puts forth zero effort. She arrives at school unclean, and fellow students have complained about the way she smells.

She blames her actions on my absence. This devastates me. I have always tried my best to make her understand that she was not any part of the reason her mother and I divorced.

I try to call her often. My biggest problem is I’m not good at casual conversation and idle chitchat. Generally when we talk, we end up sitting in silence until one of us says, “Well, I gotta go.”

My question is, how do I get better at talking to my baby girl so I can let her know how important she is to me? — “GOTTA GO” IN FLORIDA

DEAR GOTTA GO: Living one state away, you can’t force your child to shower and make sure she is clean and dressed in fresh clothes before she goes to school — but her mother can and should. Shame on her for allowing it, because the girl will become a social pariah, if it hasn’t happened already.

If her poor grades and hygiene are caused by depression, she should be seeing a counselor.

Those phone calls might become easier if you take a few minutes and make a list of topics you think she’s interested in, as well as questions to draw her out, before picking up the phone. Ask her what she THINKS about something or how she FEELS about things rather than yes or no questions.

Tell her you are thinking about her and that you love her every time you call, because that’s really the most important message you are trying to convey, and the one she needs the most to hear.

DEAR ABBY: I am a first-time uncle of a 4-month-old nephew. My brother and sister-in-law are extremely close with my wife and me. We see them three or four times a week, and we are very fond of our nephew. I love being an uncle, and my wife loves being an aunt.

My sister-in-law grew up calling all her parents’ friends “Aunt Sally,” “Aunt Jenna” and so on. Naturally, she plans to have my nephew call her friends “aunt” and “uncle” as well.

I feel that being an aunt or uncle is much more than just a title. We are family; we are blood. I’m a bit put off when I hear my sister-in-law say, “Here’s Uncle John,” when they see “John” only a couple of times a year. He’s not an uncle to my nephew!

Should I be offended, or is it just a title like saying “Mr.”? — REAL UNCLE IN MARYLAND

DEAR REAL UNCLE: Simmer down. Your SIL is using the term as an honorary title. As you stated, she does this because it’s the way she was raised. In no way does it diminish either your emotional or blood tie with your nephew.

Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips. Contact Dear Abby at http://www.DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

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