It’s time for another Ask Dr. Leman!. In today’s episode, Dr. Leman get’s to the root of why a child might act “shy” towards mommy or daddy.


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Doug: You need to stop acting so shy and talk to other people. I said, you need to start talking to other people. What do I do about this shy child? She won’t even talk to her own dad. That’s the question that you asked Dr. Leman that we get to ask him for you and hopefully we’ll get an answer on what we can do when we get caught in that situation. Hi, I’m Doug Terpenine-

Andrea: And I’m Andrea.

Doug: And we are so glad that you are with us today. If this happens to be your first time, welcome and we want to let you know this is for your education and entertainment purposes only. If the subject matter raises any concerns for you or a child, please go seek a local professional for help.
Well, Dr. Leman, this is a question that’s actually kind of near and dear to Andrea’s and I’s heart. Wouldn’t you say sweetie?

Andrea: Absolutely. As a child I was labeled shy and years ago I realized I’m not really shy, I’m thoughtful, I’m thinking about what I’m going to say and yet, because I was called shy, it felt like I was painted into a box. And it’s really hard to escape that box once you’re told you’re shy all your life. Now everybody expects you to be shy and it’s kind of… Not a self fulfilling prophecy, an other prophecy that is fulfilled by you because now you’re stuck in this corner.

Doug: So that’s Jenn’s question and it’s so funny here you are talking to thousands and thousands of people on air every day now as a shy person. But let’s hear-

Andrea: I’m not shy.

Doug: You’re not shy. You’re right. Okay, here’s Jenn’s question.

Jenn: Hi. First of all, I want to say thank you. Thank you for all that you do. I am a big fan of your work and I’ve read a few of your books including Making Children Mind, Parenting Your Powerful Child. However, we have a 12 year old son and eight year old son and a five year old daughter. Our daughter has seemed to be shy from the very beginning when she was very little and we made the mistake of saying that she was shy in front of everyone and realized what we’d done. So over the years we’ve been trying to correct this, although we’re still having trouble sometimes. Some of our efforts have worked. She used to not even want to talk to her dad whenever he would come home from work. So I started sending her to her room. She would cry and then eventually she stopped doing that.
But every now and then she still does that with family members. I really don’t like when my dad comes to visit and she doesn’t want to speak to him or anyone. We try to not make a big deal about it, just ignore it. Just introduce her to people like it’s no big deal, Hi, this is my daughter. She doesn’t want to get in front of the church with the rest of the kids to do their little performance that they do every now and then. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with things like that. We just want to really get past this. If you have any extra advice for us, that would be great. Thank you.

Dr. Leman: Oh, what a good question. Well, first of all, let’s talk about shyness in general. You heard what Andrea had to say that she was told she was shy, and let me point out to you, in all probability, our own Andrea Terpenine, was not shy. She was probably a little too perfectionistic as a kid where she wanted to make sure that what she said was right or what she did was right. And people read that as shyness. So I would concur with Andrea’s self-diagnosis that she wasn’t shy. Okay.
But normally when I hear the word shy, the first thing that resonates in my mind is we’re dealing with a powerful child. So I think to be practical with you, Jenn, as far as her getting up and doing things with her friends, whether it be in Sunday school, or school, or whatever, nothing that I’m going to tell you is going to be very helpful in that regard.
The social milieu, the teacher, the other students will be far more reinforcing than anything I could tell you because you’re not in the classroom. I’m not in the classroom. So nature will run its course there. But let’s talk about something practical you can do in your home. Number one, I would have a meeting in your home with yourself, your husband, 12 year old and eight year old, and I would introduce it as maybe a game if you’d like or to experiment and just talk about the fact that we are not going to respond to little sister unless she speaks to us. So at dinner time you could set the place setting for five if you want. You could also see what it’s like when you set it for four and just sort of move along in life like she’s not there and just see what happens.
It’s just an experiment. Sometimes you do that and all of a sudden a kid will start talking a blue streak and some kids will say, “Well wait a minute. Where’s my food?” Okay, well the kids talking, “Oh, did you want to have dinner with us?” You can do that approach, that kind of thing. If you try to get her to talk and she perceives you as trying to get her to talk, good luck. So you’re going to have to emotionally instruct yourself not to get yourself in the reinforcement, “Here’s the reward for speaking,” mode because it’ll just make things worse. So that’s for openers, that’s basically what you do.
In all probability, she’s a powerful child. That’s one of the way she controls things. It’s one of the way she demands attention from you and other family members. So just tuning her out. I would do that for a couple of weeks with a firm commitment that when she asks for something, you could accommodate that. When she speaks, you respond. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t. So you’re not telling her to get ready. You’re not telling her to pick up her clothes, you’re not telling her to do anything. Just become silent, run silent. So that’s my opening suggestion.

Doug: That would be tough for any person to do. Could you imagine just ignoring your daughter, your five year old daughter until she started talking, Andrea?

Andrea: No, I almost feel like it feels like a punishment to her when in my mind I don’t see her as being disobedient.

Dr. Leman: She doesn’t respond. This is a kid who’s not talking. So help me understand what you just said, because I don’t get it.

Andrea: Yeah.

Doug: Where’s the bad behavior? She’s just silent.

Andrea: Right. Is it wrong that she’s not talking to people or is it something that she needs freedom to get over?

Dr. Leman: She is displaying her power. It’s a powerful child. So you’re dealing with power, so you’re going to remove your what? from her wind?

Doug: Sail.

Andrea: Her sail.

Dr. Leman: Problem is her wind is silent. She’s not saying a word. So do you get her to open up by talking to her and trying to pry out from her what she wants or what she needs? No. Just pretend she doesn’t exist for a while and see what happens.

Doug: So Andrea, you’re assuming that her silence is that she is a internal processor who doesn’t want to answer questions.

Andrea: Right. It might be different than that.

Dr. Leman: She’s not a miniature Andrea. I don’t think so.

Andrea: I didn’t have a problem talking at home, I guess is the difference. It was just more when I went to school. And even now as an adult, I don’t like to talk to everybody and talk a blue streak to everybody.

Dr. Leman: It was performance based on your part. In other words, you didn’t feel like you wanted to perform you. You felt the pressure at school, where maybe you played your cards real close to your chest, so to speak.

Andrea: Exactly.

Dr. Leman: Maybe I didn’t get everything, maybe you can help me with everything that Jenn said, remind me, but it sounds to me like this kid is just a powerful little buzzard who finds control from the baby position of the family, which normally you don’t see. Controllers tend to be really more firstborn. But maybe she doesn’t feel like she can compete with those older siblings.

Andrea: Right. And the fact that she wouldn’t talk to her Dad, that does sound powerful.

Doug: Or Grandpa, right? So you wouldn’t talk to either one, that does sound powerful. So Dr. Leman, then just helped me feel better about myself. This would not be vindictive for me to be silent back to the child. Because that feels like I’m just like rubbing her nose in it.

Dr. Leman: Yeah. And it’s not punishment. I’m not talking about punishment. We’re not punishing a kid for anything. But to get along in this world, I got news for you, she’s going to have to talk. So she doesn’t talk to Grandpa. Well that’s a socially awkward position for the parent to be in. What do you mean? I mean, my daughter’s not talking to her grandpa?. I mean the inclination for a parent is to say, “Honey, Grandpa asked you a question.” So you’re going to have to get everybody on board so that we don’t have two thirds of the internal circle that she is around on a daily basis or on a weekly basis. You got to get everybody into this experiment for lack of a better term.

Andrea: So you would probably even get Grandpa in on that meeting and say, “Okay Grandpa, when you come over, greet the boys, wrestle with them. But-

Doug: Would you go so far as to have Grandpa, say, bring treats for the boys and not the girl?

Dr. Leman: No.

Andrea: Because then she would start performing, right?

Dr. Leman: No, I wouldn’t do that. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with. Grandpa coming in and greeting the children by name and greeting the youngest. I’m not saying don’t greet her, Grandpa. I’m just saying don’t foster a conversation with her. Don’t ask, “Well Honey, what, what did you do today? How is preschool or how is kindergarten?” All of the things that a grandpa might say to a granddaughter, don’t say them.

Doug: So for the slow guy, between the three of us, which is me, you’re saying this is the exact same as telling mom, stick it in your eyeballs, mom, or whatever, right? This is just a different form of that.

Dr. Leman: Well, this is purposive behavior. Her silence, everybody put your thinking cap on for a second. What does her silence create for her?

Doug: Power. Control. She makes the parents perform.

Dr. Leman: Right. And so she’s saying, I am in control. I am an authority over you. I’m not even going to push the authority button here that a parent obviously has authority over their children. I’m just saying you need to create a situation in your home where she’s going to have to speak. And that’s why I even suggest if you want to set the table four, as part of the experiment, do so. Let her at least say, “Wait a minute, where’s my food?” “Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted to eat.” Put the food down in front of her and then go and talk to your sons over dinner. In other words, it might take a while for her to catch on, this isn’t paying off. But it is purpose of behavior. In other words, this kid is saying, “I’m not speaking to you.”

Andrea: Could this come from parents that are overly authoritarian that have driven her, like you said about me, to perfectionism. So there’s this need to perform?

Dr. Leman: That’s probably the best guest, but let me just say this about that. It could be just trial and error. Something had triggered this two years ago. It might’ve been just a simple little thing, but her reality is what? The five-year-old’s reality is what she perceives to be true.

Andrea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Leman: Someday I’m going to write a book about lying. And I think most people lie to themselves on a daily basis.

Doug: Ouf, that would hurt. So let’s go back to Jenn real quick. So Jenn feels terrible that she’s fostered this by identifying her daughter as shy and paying off this behavior by giving her attention and all of that. Is there anything that Jenn needs to say? I know as soon as I say those words, you’re going to be like, “Have you never heard of reality discipline?” Yes. But is there anything else that Jenn needs to do in regards to that?

Dr. Leman: No, I think reality is the teacher, Doug. Keep in mind everybody, the reality of the situation becomes the teacher to the child. Think about that. The reality of the situation. So we’re not talking about dad and mom. We’re not talking about brothers, grandma, grandpa, anybody else, we’re talking about the reality of the situation. Well, what is the reality of situation?
The reality of the situation now is that these people are not playing the game that they played where you are the powerful little queen bee and the rest of us are slaving over the hot stove, so to speak, trying to figure out how to get you to talk. Well, I go back to what I’ve said many times, the book Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, you don’t make children mind, but you create situations where the kid figures out, “Hey, I might’ve have to go a different avenue here.” So sooner or later that kid’s going to figure that out.

Doug: When we come back from the break, I want to talk about what are the longterm consequences for this girl if the parents don’t resolve this. But it does make me think, I know we’ve been talking about it because it just released, but your brand new book, Why Kids Misbehave and What to Do About It, and it makes me think of this section in there that you lay out the four levels that children go to, right? They start at attention, and then they go to power, and they go to revenge, I forget the fourth one. But this is why the book is so good because it re-reminds us that why is this kid doing this? Is it for attention? And then it’s switched to power, right? And that’s what you’re telling us.

Dr. Leman: Exactly.

Doug: And I’m just telling you, that book will help you. Look at Andrea and I, we even forgot these basic concepts that if you’ve read a Dr. Lehman book before or you have listened to podcasts, this book is so one, two, three, four, the seven steps are in there, I just can’t encourage you enough. Go get Why Your Kid Misbehaves and What You Can Do About It.
Okay. I’m also from Ravel, right now, between now and the end of May of 2020 you can get Born To Win for $1.99. Andrea, do you have anything?

Andrea: I do. I have a great little review here. It says, Now I Get It, is the title they put on it. “I’m married to a super firstborn who always had me wondering about why he does what he does. After reading this book, I have better understanding about him and how he operates. I see things differently now after gaining more insight into what makes him so organized and businesslike. I appreciated this book for what it offered me. Although I am a middle child in my family, I bought this book to help me understand my spouse and it really did. Great read, funny, insightful.”

Doug: So go get Born To Win between now and May of 2020 and now a No Nonsense Parenting Moment with Dr. Kevin Leman.

Dr. Leman: Hey, acceptance. What does that mean? There’s nothing better than that feeling of being accepted. You know, your son or daughter is going to be either accepted or rejected; in school, in a peer group and at home. Your job as a parent, since you cover the home is to make sure your kid feels accepted. That that’s that place he can identify with or he feels loved no matter what. That’s the agape, unmitigated love we have for our kids. It’s really important that he feels accepted in the home. If he doesn’t feel accepted in the home, guess what? He’s going to go outside of the comfort and love of your home and he’s going to find acceptance in a peer group that’s usually negative and not positive. So make sure you love your kids. This is really simple. Accept them for who they are. Treat them differently. That’s part of acceptance. Do a good job of this, your kid will flourish because of it.

Doug: So Dr. Leman, if Jenn doesn’t address this shy behavior and she keeps this, “Hey, come on, come on daughter. You got to talk, you got to talk, you got to talk.” What is going to end up with this daughter? Where’s this going to go?

Dr. Leman: It’s going to deteriorate this kid’s self-esteem. She might stay at the power level. She is a powerful child. Okay? And again, remember when you’re a powerful child, you’re also an attention getter. When you go from attention getting to power, you don’t drop the attention getting, you’ve just added to your social repertoire behavior, powerful behavior. It didn’t replace the attention getting behavior that’s still there. What I’m saying is, this kid goes through a school system now and all of a sudden isn’t talking, guess who’s going to come along and throw a little label her way? And now she’s a special child. “She’s a special child, Dr. Leman.” Hey, I know what special child needs. We have seven schools. I know a little something about that.
But the kid is just going to label herself and people are going to over-respond, over-react is probably a better term, and it’s just going to get blown more and more out of proportion as she goes through a system, namely a school. So it’s good to do something now. Five is perfect time to do this. Three would have been better but five for right now is as perfect as we can get, because we can’t go back.

Doug: Wow. Well I just think about, you know, I manage people and it might be just my personality, but the “shy” people that I have to manage are by far harder than the vocal ones. The vocal ones I can deal with because at least now I know what’s going on. It’s the shy ones that just drive you nuts, which you would think would be opposite, but-

Dr. Leman: Okay, let me be personal with you. Do any of your shy ones cry a lot?

Doug: Do you mean at work or at home?

Dr. Leman: No, basically at work. You know, one gender cries more than another quite frankly. Don’t send me a nasty email on that folks. I’m just telling you that I worked in an office once with seven female assistants and I can’t enumerate the number of times I saw tears.

Doug: No, you’re right. There are more tears from the shy ones, or excuse me, from the quiet ones. Yeah, you’re right.

Dr. Leman: Well, here’s the deal. Hold on here. How do you feel as a man when you’ve said something or done something and your wife cries.

Doug: Oh, you’re brought to your knees. You can’t move forward. You’re stuck.

Dr. Leman: Right? So the shedding of tears itself could be a very powerful, manipulative way of getting what you want. So just keep in mind there’s all kinds of behaviors that can equate to shyness. What would you say if I said that somebody who is very explosive, was explosive for the direct reason to keep people away from them?

Doug: Oh yeah, I believe it.

Dr. Leman: Yeah. So do you see what I’m saying is, I’m not trying to just say one size fits all. I’m just saying when you talk about shyness, it’s a little bit like nailing slime. You ever see kids play with slime?

Doug: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Leman: Comes in a little jar and it’s really gross looking. It’s like trying to take a nail and sticking it up on a wall. Good luck. It can be very elusive. And so just keep in mind that shy people can control. We usually think of controllers as firstborn children, but you can control from the baby position of the family through shyness real easy. And you can control from the baby position of the family through temper tantrums. So temper tantrums are so different than being shy, but notice it’s the same psychological mechanism at work. You’re controlling.

Doug: Wow.

Dr. Leman: But you’re doing it in different ways. So I think the experiment kind of thing that we suggested for Jenn is very worth doing and I would do it for a long period of time.

Andrea: What’s a long period of time?

Dr. Leman: Couple of months. That’s a long time.

Andrea: Oh, you think it’ll take her that long to snap out of it?

Dr. Leman: No. No, I don’t. I think it’ll be a short period.

Andrea: She’ll respond, but they should keep up the behavior.

Dr. Leman: Yeah. Some kids just, they get it. They say, Oh, I get you. All right. Okay. I can dig in a little deeper. All right, go ahead. I’m not moving. How many times have we had parents say to us in one form or another, “Dr. Leman, you can do anything to this kid. You could beat him with a stick. You could take away everything. He doesn’t care.” Well, what’s the purpose of nature of him not caring? He’s saying, “I don’t care what you do. You’re not breaking me. I’m in control here. I’m not giving up my kingdom.” But once the kingdom isn’t paying off anymore, then the kid says, “Wait a minute. I think I got to change lanes here.” And that’s what we hope happens here.
So again, it goes without saying I hope Jenn, if your little one begins to open up now, don’t celebrate. Don’t overdo it because she’ll jump right back into her little fox hole and cover herself with dirt.

Doug: Really? I was about to-

Andrea: Don’t say to her, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re talking.” That’s like the worst thing for somebody like that to hear. Yeah. Oh yeah.

Dr. Leman: Yeah, yeah. Just take it in stride.

Andrea: Like it’s normal.

Dr. Leman: When a kid does well in school, one of my favorites is just, “Honey it’s so good to see you enjoy learning.” It’s so good to see that you enjoy learning. It’s not, “You’re the greatest kid in the world for getting an A on that,” or whatever. Or, “Wow, your hard work really paid off, congratulations.” That’s vitamin E. So don’t over celebrate if you see some early signs of her coming out of our little cocoon. Just take it and stride.

Doug: Well this is super helpful and I know I just referenced it, but I’m going to reference it again, the brand new book, Why Your Kid Misbehaves. It’s so nice to know why they’re misbehaving so then you can respond in the right way and not react, and then what to do about it.

Dr. Leman: Doug, I should have dedicated that book to Jenn. This is her book. So Jenn, I hope you’ll get a copy real quick.

Doug: I just think for the Jenns and the Doug Terpenines of the world, for us to have a framework to understand it is gold, for my personality at least. Maybe not for the people that are listening but sure helps me to understand things.

Dr. Leman: You know Doug, you mentioned framework and it’s nice for an author to like his books. They’re like your children, you like them, but there’s a few of them you really love. And the Birth Order Book is one that I love because it gives you a framework. It lets you stand back and say, “Oh, I see why child number three is ducking under, so to speak. Because child number one is a little bluebird with straight A’s. And guess what? Bigger brother opposite sex from the first one. He’s a bluebird too. I got two straight A students. Now I understand why number three sees herself the way she sees herself and underperforms and doesn’t try. Why doesn’t she try? Because in her mind she can’t measure up to those kids.”
So parents, here’s your question. Do you treat these kids differently? Chances are you haven’t. So by the time child three comes along, he sees those lanes, those positive lanes where the kids are flying at 30,000 feet, are filled. But “Oh, I see this little cart with a donkey. Maybe I’ll climb on that for my transportation.” You see what I’m saying? It’s a conscious effort on the kids’ part, not to go head-to-head with somebody I know I’m going to get beat by. And again, beat is their perception.

Doug: Oh absolutely. This is why I think these books are so good. All of them. Like you’ve said multiple times, read Birth Order Book, children mind you…. I can never get that title. But Helping Children Mind Without Losing Yours, whatever that title is, you know what it is. And now, Why Your Kid Misbehaves. You just put them together and you get this beautiful look at, “Oh this is what this kid’s doing to me.” And you joke about, “We have seen the enemy and they’re small,” it really does help you realize they are beautiful but are not so innocent at times. So go get these books for your sake. Honestly, you want to reduce stress in your life, this is the time to do it.
Jenn, kudos to you for asking this incredible question. Thank you. And for those of you that want to leave a question, you can go to and there’ll be a microphone right there at the bottom and you can leave your audio question for us and we would love, love, love to answer any of your questions. And a reminder, get Born To Win if you are first born, if you’re married to a first born, or you have a first born kid to understand them better between now and the end of May of 2020. And we look forward to the next time we get to be with you and add to your parenting toolbox so you can love those kids and have a framework on how to parent. Take care.

Andrea: Bye-bye.