Help me help my sister
July 29, 2006 6:13 AM   Subscribe

My sister was ditched by her friends in high school. It's been almost three years and she still has very few friends. It has also led to her having low self esteem. How can i help her?

When my sister was in high school, she had a group of friends that were not really friends at all. They went out, organised get togethers, and basically lived very social lives, but never invited her. She didn't do anything about it and has had virtually zero contact from them since leaving school. She tried, but they did not reciprocate (even ditching her 18th birthday). On top of this her end of year marks were much lower than she expected and as a result her self esteem got hammered.

She went to work in an office with a very small, much older, staff a few months after finishing school, so she didn't have much social interaction with peole her own age. She started university this year and has made 2 or 3 good friends, but they don't live locally and getting together with them is rather hard. On top of this, she is really hesistant to ask people to do things with her because she is scared of rejection. As a result, she is not making any new friends and the hole she is in just seems to be getting deeper.

She has sort of become part of my circle of friends, but when we are out, I can tell she feels awkward and would much rather be surrounded by friends that are her own. I can also tell that she doesn't want to be treated as a charity case.

Now to my point. It's her 21st birthday next year. I know that she wants a party. I'm scared she's not going to have anyone to invite. How can I help her make friends?

We are at different universities but still both live at home if that helps. By the way, we also live somewhere where legal drinking age is 18, if that widens my options at all.

Any suggestions?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It is very sweet that you're so concerned about your sister. But, really, this is her problem, not yours. It sounds like she wasn't very good at finding friends while she was in high school.

Living at home while attending university is, IMHO, a challenge for making friends. If her uni is a campus where a lot of people live in dormitories or in shared houses/apartments, that is where a lot of the social scene happens!

I'd suggest that you suggest to her that she joins some clubs/societies at uni that interest her. The more friends that she makes, the more likely it is that she goes out.

I'd also recommend that she get into her uni's volunteer program. She'll meet people her age and they will likely (because they are already volunteering), nice people who will make for nice friends.

Don't worry about her party.
posted by k8t at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2006

I would make her a present of an activity for her to do alone. A bicycle? A camera? Or perhaps something she could do specifically on her birthday, like lessons of some kind. This would, in some sense, give her an 'excuse' for not having a party, which can be nice to have in that situation. Make it special, but also not appropriate for a bunch of people.

You have to love yourself before you can love another.
posted by alexei at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2006

Encourage her to move on campus or find a small apartment with roommates near campus. You always become someone new when you move, nth-fold when you move away from home. The old environment may be suppressing her development.
posted by Mapes at 6:42 AM on July 29, 2006

Other than letting her hang out with you and your friends, and encouraging her to be more social, I don't what there is that you can do *for* her. This is a problem your sister must solve herself. I'd encourage her to go get some counselling
posted by orange swan at 6:43 AM on July 29, 2006

Friendships are made via points of commonality.

My first friendship (in second grade) was forged over the teacher's storytime. The teacher was reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I had my own copy of the book, which made comprehension of the material less difficult. He had a large rabbit pelt, which made the bean bag chair slightly less uncomfortable as a pillow.

In college, the most enduring friendships were forged over anime DVDs; specifically the Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal OVAs.

My sister, who was even more insular than me, recently found herself a circle of friends (and a possible romantic interest!) via her love of cycling and running.

Advise your sister to put aside her fear of rejection and invest herself in some type of face-to-face social activity which she'll enjoy on its own merits. MMORPGs and other Internet-based social outlets, of course, are specifically excluded.
posted by The Confessor at 6:59 AM on July 29, 2006

Don't worry about her party. Though I can't speak to your sister's past, some of her "fear of rejection" feelings may have basis in low grade social anxiety which at higher levels becomes social anxiety disorder or social phobia.

I lived with someone for years who had this, and most of the time it was fairly invisible. Every now and again it would reveal itself in minor panic attacks and freakouts over what I thought were everyday occurrences -- going out to a bar to meet some friends, getting a bit of attitude from the guy inspecting our car, calling a stranger on the phone. We had a bit of a blow-up over a birthday party as well, they're high stress events for people with social stress, and he refused to let me invite any of his friends which meant that it was an "our friends only" affair which was just damned strange. Usually this sort of thing is typified by the fear or concern of being judged by people in social situations, so much so that you keep yourself out of such situations to avoid judgment. My ex was quite happy with most parts of his life, doing a lot of solitary things or interacting with others in ways that were for him, low stress, i.e. going out to a bar to see who is there, no fear of rejection if no one shows up, so it's really up to the individual person how much they feel that this is some sort of impediment to the life they want to lead.

Again, I have no idea if this is or is not your sister but it might be worth at least looking into the social phobia idea because if it fits her to a T, there are ways to assist with therapy/medication. On the other hand, she may just be introverted, or slow to make friends, or just different from you socially which may not be a bad thing as long as she's not beating herself up over it or staying away from things she might otherwise find enjoyable.
posted by jessamyn at 7:00 AM on July 29, 2006

A similar thing happened to me in middle school, and has led to my assumption that when people invite me to do things, it is because they feel obligated or pity me, rather than truly just wanting me around. I even feel this way with people I KNOW want me around. It took a therapist asking me "why do you assume that you have nothing to offer?" to realize this, and ever since, I've been pushing myself to get over that insecurity. Even being aware of it, its hard. I hate being that person at the party who only knows one person, and stands with a drink awkwardly not knowing what to do.

But then again, I'm also one of those people who requires a lot of alone time to stay sane. And when I finally feel social, I dont have many contacts. Its all my own fault really, but it doesn't make me any less lonley.

But I've learned that I really do value the one or two close friends that I have made, and realize that I really woudnt be satisfied by the tons of acquaintinces that my college friends have. Now, its a balance of me pushing myself to get over my insecurities and recognizing who I am and what matters to me that makes this situation better.

Bottom line? There may not be much you can do for her. Including her in your group is great, and I'm sure she has fun, even if she does feel awkward at times. But I'd say the best bet is giving her time to accept herself for who she is, rather than desperately searching. It seems like the best friends come when you least expect them anyhow.
posted by gilsonal at 7:09 AM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with Jessamyn, I have much the same issue and it's related to anxiety and social phobia much more than a self esteem issue. I find that now, at almost 40, I make the decision myself to have few friends because I'm more comfortable that way. When my more outgoing friends invite my husband and I to events, I tend to have some anxiety about it and sometimes don't even attend.

She will probably have to find what's comfortable for her in making social contacts, if she's not comfortable in initiating plans with other people then she probably will have to just give it time until she's ready herself.

But you are very sweet to try to help her with this.
posted by hollygoheavy at 7:10 AM on July 29, 2006

You say she has a few friends -- I think a nice celebration would be to make sure you can find a date that they all know about and are available for, and have a small get-together with you, your sister, her few friends and any new ones, and have a great time. It doesn't matter if you have many friends or few -- she'll be all the more happy to see the few she does have if you make sure they all show up.
posted by theredpen at 7:33 AM on July 29, 2006

gilsonal, I think we are twins.

I also agree with theredpen - her "party" doesn't have to be a huge bash (despite what those MTV shows about girls sweet 16 parties would have us believe...I know she's not 16, but 21, same diff). My 21st birthday was spent with 3 of my good friends. We got a room at a casino's hotel (because I was the last in the group to be "legal" - 21 is the age around here), and we had a great time playing cheap slots and watching people act like idiots in the casino's dance club. It sounds like your sister wouldn't really be the type to enjoy a big party anyway.

As far as helping her make new friends, you're not gonna be able to do that. She's either social or she isn't, and you can't change that. I wish you could (because that means that there's hope for me, haha!), but you can't.
posted by AlisonM at 7:47 AM on July 29, 2006

cIf she wants friends she will have them. Not anything for you to do except be there for her to talk to if she feels a need for this.
posted by Postroad at 8:10 AM on July 29, 2006

I was awkward in high school, and moving to another city and living in a dorm on an honors floor helped me (there were other themed floors, e.g. art. And there were off-campus housing co-ops too). I met so many people who were similar to me. If finances are an issue, go to the financial aid office. Don't rule out something just because of finances--I also met people through my on-campus job.

but anyway, you can't tell her what to do, or where to live, or how long to linger on campus when she isn't doing work, &c. Maybe what I suggest worked for me, but wouldn't work for her. She needs to find her own way, but that's not to say that you can't suggest and guide.

do have consideration for her dignity.
posted by bleary at 8:58 AM on July 29, 2006

If I were in her shoes: your concern would be appreciated, but also embarrassing and perhaps counterproductive -- hopefully the both of you are not regular readers (someone this self-conscious would probably see herself in this even if she weren't your own sister).

In any case, one thing that may bring her out of her shell a bit faster would be to travel someplace very foreign -- foreign language, foreign culture, different skintones, etc. -- because the visible and audible foreigness of her surroundings may bypass her existing beliefs and expectations enough to learn new habits. Perhaps she could be interested in a foreign language and encouraged to take advantage of whatever foreign-study opportunities her university has?

In a similar vein, she may be more comfortable around people markedly younger or older than she is, again because they are not automaticaly tossed into the same category as 'betraying, heartless peers'. If there are opportunities to work with or otherwise be around oldersters or youngsters in a not-purely-social setting that may be something to encourage, also.
posted by little miss manners at 9:59 AM on July 29, 2006

I think a party with just a few people --- such as you, her, and three or four others --- would be just fine.

I think there's often a misconception, among the socially phobic, that everyone else has tons of friends. In fact, it's only as I have gotten older that I have learned that lots and lots of people have only a few friends, that it's not by any means unusual to have just three or four people you socialize with.
posted by jayder at 10:32 AM on July 29, 2006

Encourage her to volunteer. In doing things for others, she'll have an escape from feeling bad about herself. Esteem comes in buckets when in the service of humanity. She'll likely find other kindhearted souls through the projects she works on. A gift of service is a gift to self.

On that note, helping to connect her with a volunteer opportunity relevant to young adults will increase her exposure to other, presumably kind, young adults. Ideas: HIV/AIDS prevention, girl empowerment, substance abuse support, suicide prevention, women's health and family planning volunteering. If she's academic, she might do well to put herself up on bulletin boards as a tutor. She'll meet countless students while offering a service to distract from her social anxiety and/or relative isolation.

Encourage her to play or participate in a social sport at her university. Non-competitive, intramural stuff. Being part of a team will create a natural space for her. Same goes for joining a casual music ensemble. If she's at all religious, why not encourage her to participate in her denomination's group at her campus. Church can be a warm and comforting place for many. Church activities tend to be endless.

Ditch the idea of parties for a while, do things to get her outside of herself and possibly outside of her geographical region. A visit to a nearby city of interest for her birthday would be a nice thing. Imagine a day filled with exploration, museums, shopping, a nice dinner and adult beverages. No friend pressure, all new stimuli. If you're socially brave, you might have an easy time demonstrating the art of talking to strangers, sparking conversations with the people you'll naturally encounter.

The idea of gifting her with a camera is a great one, as she might have an opportunity to use flickr to form passive friendships with others who share her interests. Likewise, gifting her with a MeFi account might be nice.
posted by cior at 3:58 PM on July 29, 2006

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