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How to Parent a Shy Child

How to Parent a Shy Child

posted by Karen Quinn, The Testing Mom - March 20th, 2011

Karen Quinn, interviewed Dr. Bernardo Carducci, an expert in child shyness! Here is a transcript of the interview:

  • Karen Quinn:    Welcome to The 30 Minute Mom on I’m Karen Quinn, mother of two and your host. Like you I’m too busy with real life to read all those advice filled parenting books. On this show we talk to experts and parents for insights and advice on how to make the hardest job in the world just a little bit easier.  If you want to know a little bit more about me you can check out my website at where you can read my personal blog, or visit  or where you can learn about the work I do with children.Today we’re going to talk about parenting a shy child with an expert on shyness, Doctor Bernardo Carducci. What do you do if your child shrinks from being with people or joining in the fun? How do you coax a child out of his shell and help him shine?I was so lucky in this regard because my own children were very outgoing, but at my website where we help families whose kids are going to be tested for gifted programs or private schools one of the most asked questions we get from parents is, “How do I help my shy child warm up to a strange psychologies or teacher who’s going to be assessing her?” In fact, yesterday I got a call from a parent who was very upset because her child literally fell apart and refused to go into the classroom for a private school interview for kindergarten. She was just too shy to do it.It’s hard enough, when you think about it, to have to worry about, “Does my child know what they’re supposed to know when they’re evaluated?” If you have to also worry about whether or not your child will be comfortable enough to open up with the stranger who’s testing her, that makes it doubly stressful. Handling the testing situation is something I definitely want to explore with our guest today, among other topics.Let me go ahead and introduce him. We have with us today Doctor Bernardo Carducci who is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University South East. Doctor Carducci has written several books on this subject, including The Shyness Breakthrough. Doctor Carducci, thank you so much for joining us today.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    You’re welcome and I wanted to say that I am the proud father of one child, 36 years old.
  • Karen Quinn:    Good for you.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    They’re always children to us, no matter what their age.
  • Karen Quinn:    That is the truth. Absolutely. Mine are pretty grown up now too, but I talk to parents all the time and shyness is something, like I said, that really does come up a lot. Let me just, before we get started I want to say what I’m hoping we can give our audience today. First I’m hoping we can help parents understand shyness a little better in general. What is it and why do some kids have it and others don’t? Second I would love to just talk about how we can help our kids deal with their shyness in different situations. Doctor Carducci, how would you define shyness? What do we need to understand about what it is and why some people have it and some people don’t?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Sure. There are a variety of reasons why people exhibit what we call shyness. That can vary basically from biological contributions to psychological contributions – extensive self-consciousness – to environmental conditions. Transition, going to a new situation or into a new experience. These kids of factors play a role regardless of the age of the individual. What seems to happen, though, as people get older the biological contributions become less and the psychological factors become more of a concern.Again, what’s so interesting about the study of shyness is that these dynamics seem to be the same. For shy people there are three things that we need to know about shyness. First and foremost, shyness involves an excessive sense of self-consciousness. We’re highly aware of ourselves. We become highly critical of ourselves. It’s like standing in front of a mirror. When you put people in front of a mirror, adults let’s say, the first thing they do is they don’t say, “My God, how beautiful I look.” What most people do is they check their faults. They primp their hair, they primp their clothes. That’s because what this mirror does is it creates this sense of self-consciousness and self critical evaluation. That happens at all ages.What people do when they’re self critical, if they shut down they move away. You have to understand that first and foremost. That’s really what it is. Then we go from there to the underlying dynamics of shyness. These are these three characteristic features of shyness that not only help us understand shyness but to deal more effectively with it. Those are three characteristics that include what we call the approach/avoidance conflict.Kids, shy or not, want truly to be with others. For shy kids the conflict is they want to move towards others but they feel for a variety of reasons that they can’t. They’re too aroused, they’re too afraid; they don’t know what to do. That’s typically what we think of the pain of shyness.Then we have what we call the slow to warm up effect. Shy children, like shy adults, tend to need more time to adjust to new or novel situations. That’s either going to kindergarten if you’re a kid, going to a new school if you’re an adolescent or meeting some new teens. If you’re an adult going to a new city, going to a new job, going to a new transition in your life, going through a divorce or a baby, all of these kinds of things. There’s this slow to warm up tendency.The third is what we call a limited comfort zone. Shy people tend to feel comfortable in a fewer number of situations. They have friends, but they have a fewer number of friends. They like to do things but they tend to do them in a reduced number of situations. It’s hard for them to get out of that comfort zone.What we try to do is we get people to understand these underlying dynamics, and then use your shyness and that understanding to work with you instead of working against you. Shy people tend to work against themselves.
  • Karen Quinn:    I see. Let me ask you if, let’s say we have a young child and the shyness that our child is experiencing is keeping them from making friends or going to birthday parties. What kinds of things can parents do to help their kids?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    First and foremost we always tell our parents that we need to love our kids for who they are, not how outgoing they are. We always preface it with that. The other thing that we tell parents is we have to be careful and not trivialize that shyness or begrudge that child based on adult standards. What happens is we will think, “That’s just another kid, you should be fine.” That’s from an adult standard. From a child’s standard that’s a new, monumental transition. We say that you have to think from that perspective. Keeping that in mind there are a number of things that we can do.First and foremost go to the child’s strengths. Again, children typically like being and like playing with other children. Tell them that this new experience is similar to other things that they’ve done. You’ve gone on a vacation and there were kids that were new there, but after a day or two you became their friends too. This again is like you did when you were on vacation. We’re going to go to a birthday party, this birthday party is like going to your cousin’s house. We had cake, we played games, there were other people there. This party we’re going to go to is similar to that. Let them know that they’ve already experienced success in similar situations. That helps them transition out of their comfort zone.
  • Karen Quinn:    Okay, so bringing up situations that have been similar that they’ve been successful at and reminding them of that is a good strategy.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Sure. Also remind them what they did so that they can take credit for their success. “Remember when you were meeting those new kids on vacation last year. At first you just stood by on the outside there and waited for a few minutes. Then you said something to them or you brought your toy over and you started to play. Let’s do the same kind of thing. Take the toy that you have with you here in the park and bring it over to that kid like you did last time we were on vacation.” Let them know that they were instrumental in their own success in the past, that they already have the tools to do this and that they were successful in the past. We build on their strengths. We build on their past experiences. We make these new situations connected to those older situations.
  • Karen Quinn:    Got it. Let me ask you this because I know that my parents at are going to want me to ask you this question.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Sure.
  • Karen Quinn:    The one that comes up all the time is shy kids who have to be tested for a gifted program or a private school, they’re going to have to go in for an interview. This happens very young in many cases. Kids could be four years old and they’re going to have to go to a school they’ve never been to to be tested or go into a classroom they’ve never been into. What can we do to help these very shy children adjust in this situation?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Again, we go back to those same sorts of basic principles of understanding shyness. Again, we work to the child’s strength. So we know that the child has slow to warm up tendencies. We say that make sure what you do is you show up early to give them a chance to warm up to the new and the novel situation.I consider myself to be what I call successfully shy. No matter where I go I try to show up early to give myself time to adjust to the situation. You do the same thing. If possible, go to the school a day ahead of time, two days ahead of time, and let your child see that the school or the classroom looks a lot like our house. Here’s where we hang our jacket up. You hang your jacket up at home. Here’s a toilet at the school. That looks exactly like the toilet at home only it’s smaller.The test, they’re going to ask you to do things like read and identify colors, and play with toys. You do that at school. You do that at the park. The teacher at school is going to be like the mommy at school. Just like the mommy at home is the teacher at home. At home we read, we do problems, we play with puzzles. We’re going to do the same things at the school. You look at the school, they have toys like you have at home.The idea is you make the school experience similar to the home experience. Again, keep pointing out the things that they’ve done in the past.
  • Karen Quinn:    Maybe if they’re already going to nursery school you could compare it to their nursery school.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Absolutely, yes. Remind them with, “Remember the first day you went to nursery school how difficult it was? Now, when you’re at nursery school and there’s new kids you’re the one who helps them feel more comfortable, play with the toys. That’s what you’re going to do here as well.” Not only focus on their success but focus on what they did to create that success so that they can feel that they are empowered, that they already have the skills to do this because they’ve experienced past success.
  • Karen Quinn:    Bernie, do you have any more suggestions about what parents can do to get their kids ready for going in to be evaluated if they’re really shy? What other things could parents do?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Sure. Again, we talked about what you can do to prepare the child to be in that situation. There are things that you can also do in your house to help that child gain some confidence. What you might do there is engage in some practice interviews. Tell your child, “We’re going to go to the school tomorrow and they’re going to ask you some questions. Here are some of the questions that they’re going to ask you,” and have that child practice those questions with you.Have that child practice those same questions again with other individuals. It might be a neighbor or it might be a relative. The whole idea is to have them hear themselves talk out loud and respond to these questions. By the way, these are the same kinds of things we tell adults who are going on job interviews or who are going on dates and who are nervous about dating.The whole idea is to practice these things in as many different environments as possible so the child can see, “These are things that I’ve done before. All I’m doing is I’m changing one thing at a time. Instead of talking to my aunt of my neighbor now I’m talking to the teacher.”
  • Karen Quinn:    Okay, that makes a lot or sense. Even a little four year old or five year old could do this.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Absolutely. Again, if you know that there’s going to be some behavioral test, they’re going to give you a problem to do or some toys to play with, have them do those kinds of things at home. The whole idea is to get them familiar. Take advantage of their shyness.
  • Karen Quinn:    Got it. I want to talk some more about parenting a shy child, but I first want to remind everybody that you are listening to The 30 Minute Mom on and we are talking with Doctor Bernardo Carducci, Director of The Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University South East.By the way, if you like what you’re listening to, tell your friends. To do that go to, click on “Shows” and click on The 30 Minute Mom where you can send a link to this show via Facebook, Twitter or email to all your friends who would enjoy listening. Doctor Carducci, I’ll pick another situation.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Please call me Bernie. We are friends. We are friends on the radio here.
  • Karen Quinn:    Let’s pick another situation that I think is probably one that kids feel a little uncomfortable with, little children often. How about a child who’s fairly new to a school and they want to have a play date with another child? How might a parent help a shy child in that situation?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Sure. Again. We go back to the fundamental principles, the underlying dynamics of shyness. Again, you go to the child’s strength. Shy children, like shy adults, want to be social. What’s interesting, and we’ll digress a little bit, is shyness actually has more in common with extroversion than it does introversion. Shy people truly want to be with others, they just have difficulty doing that. We take advantage of that tendency to want to be with other people. You work with their motivation, but you have to bring it along.
  • With these shy kids what you do is you bring this child over, the play date over to your house. The shy child is in their environment playing with their toys doing things that they are familiar with, with one new element. That new element is this new friend. After they get comfortable with that you can decide, “Let’s change one element.” So let’s take the friend that we’re comfortable with now and let’s go to a new environment. We go from the house with that new friend to the park with that new friend. While you’re at the park you can then say, “Let’s change the activity.” Instead of playing with toys that you’re familiar with, let’s try something new at the park. There’s play equipment at the park.You have a situation that the kid is comfortable with now with the friend that they’re comfortable with now, playing with something that is new. You just keep snowballing that. Again, if you want to add a new kid to this event, now they’re playing with two kids. You could either start with the old situation at home or bring a new kid to the park that they’re already familiar with. With shy kids, like shy adults, what you want to do is you want to give them time to warm up. You want to give them the opportunity to deal with situations that don’t change dramatically.
  • Karen Quinn:    Little by little, add little new elements to it, it sounds like.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    We call that the factorial approach. The factorial approach is you change one factor at a time. Shy people truly want new experiences. They want to get out of their comfort zone. They just need assistance doing this. So as the parent, you say, “Let me take advantage of my shy child’s interests and their strengths,” rather than forcing them to do things that you want them to do. What you want to do is encourage them to do things that they already know to do and then build on that.It requires patience. It requires some insight. You have to be careful that you don’t judge that child based on adult standards. For example, it’s never fair to ask a child to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. You tell you shy child, “Just go up there and say hi to that kid.” Well, as an adult would you walk up to a total stranger and say hello? People say, “No, I wouldn’t do that.” Well then it’s not fair to ask your kid to do that.
  • Karen Quinn:    Right. What about, let’s take an example if you want your child to do something that involves more people, like taking a class after school or something like that. What would be the incremental way you might help him be able to handle taking a class with kids they don’t know after school, or being on a team or something like that?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Yeah, the way to sort of build on that is we always ask parents, “What do you do to show your child how to be social? Do you have different people coming over to your house? Does the child have the opportunity to meet lots of different kinds of people in your house? Do you take your child with you when you run errands so that they get the opportunity to be around lots of different kinds of stimulation? When you go to the store and pay for your groceries, do you have your child give them the debit card or give them the cash so they can interact with the teller or the cashier?”The whole point is you can get them ready to do these kinds of things by building social activities into their life on a daily basis. Let them see you being social. Take them with you when you volunteer in your community for a park clean up or a breast cancer march, so that they can see and be around lots of different kinds of individuals.
  • Karen Quinn:    That makes a lot of sense. That gets them used to meeting new people and then if you suggest, “Now I need you to go to afterschool this week because I’ve got a class I have to take this week so I have to put you in afterschool,” and they’re not used to it. You can say, “You’ve met lots of different people that you don’t know.” You bring back the kinds of people they have met with you to remind them that they’ve been able to talk to these people and hopefully they’ll be comfortable.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    And again, children learn by looking at adults. You can say, “See what mommy did when we were at this supermarket. I asked the cashier how he was. I gave him the money, and you’re going to do this.” You remind them that they saw you doing this and this is what mommy did when meeting new people.
  • Karen Quinn:    And now you can do the same thing. That’s a great idea.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    You can do the same thing. What this does is this brings everybody into the social mix. It involves family, it involves friends, it involves your child. Your child is not doing this along.
  • Karen Quinn:    Right, you’ve got to bring everyone into it.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    You have to, absolutely. Again, whether you’re a kid, whether you’re a teen, whether you’re an adult, the dynamics are the same. When we start with other people with whom we have this sense of community it’s easier to mix. We’ll say one more thing about these afterschool kinds of programs or going to parties and these kinds of things, show up early. The afterschool program starts at 3:00, get there at 2:30 and wait around with your kid.Give your child the opportunity to warm up. When you show up early your child then can meet new kids one on one on one. As the size of the group builds and the nature of the surrounding, the ambient stimulation increases, your child is getting comfortable with that.
  • Karen Quinn:    That’s a great idea. You’re right. That makes all the sense in the world. That makes so much sense. A little at a time.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    The other thing too is as your child’s meeting one child after another, then you can say, “Now you introduce the friend you made to the new kid Bobby who just came in.” Now your child’s the social facilitator. You’re taking the focus off the child and putting it on other individuals. They’re becoming the friend of the friend of the friend. That creates popular children.
  • Karen Quinn:    Right. I’ve heard and I read when I was looking into this subject that you’re never supposed to say, for example, when you introduce your child and they’re shy and maybe you introduce them to an adult and the child hides behind you or something, that you shouldn’t say, “Oh, Billy’s just being shy.” Is that true that you should never call your child shy in front of him?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    There’s no agreement. What that does is that just simply focuses more attention on that child. Again, it’s like putting the child not only in front of a mirror but shining a light on them as well.
  • Karen Quinn:    That’s the last thing they want.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    That’s the last thing anybody wants, not just the child, that anybody wants. The idea is give them the opportunity to warm up. Again, you might tell them ahead of time, “We’re going to the store, we’re going to go to lunch and we’re going to meet some people there that I know. When we meet them here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to introduce you and what you’re going to say is, ‘Hello, my name is Billy and I’m five years old and I’m going to the store to buy some new pants for school.’” You give them a script.
  • Karen Quinn:    You rehearse it ahead of time a little bit.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Yes. This is the same kind of stuff we tell adults so that they have something to get it going. Once you have it going, “Oh, you’re going to school? What school do you go to?” Then the child is talking and focusing on the task. When they’re focusing on the task they lose that sense of self consciousness and then they are off and running.
  • Karen Quinn:    So it’s a skill. These are really skills that we need to teach our kids.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Oh man, you’re taking my job away from me. Watch it. I promise not to do radio if you promise not to write shyness books. How’s that?
  • Karen Quinn:    I won’t, I won’t. Is that what you talk about in your book? You talk about how these are skills and this is how you build each one of these skills. That’s what I’m getting, for the first time, which I didn’t really realize.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Yeah, and that’s really what shyness is all about. It’s all about developing competencies and developing skills. What’s so important about all of this is you develop these friendship skills and how to engage people when you’re in kindergarten or when you’re in the first grade, those are the kinds of skills that transition into middle school, into high school, into college, into the work force. These are literally life skills. You’re absolutely right.
  • We tell people what you need to do is you need to practice. What’s critical about the acquisition of new skills is that one, you have to know what to do so that you’re not doing the wrong thing. Like a tennis swing, here’s what the pro will tell you to do is hold your racquet this way, throw the ball up this high, look in this direction. Then you practice that. What you do is you practice it over and over again and you continually up the level of competition. You start out with people who are at the same level and you keep moving up. That’s how you get better. That’s how you get competent. You do it systematically.
  • If you have the likelihood of failing, you don’t gain that confidence. What we want these kids to do is have the opportunity to expand and raise their level of not only competence but confidence and, “I can do this.” Once they have a sense of confidence and competence, then they can take these things to new situations. When they’re going to play on the playground when you’re not there, they already know what to do.
  • Karen Quinn:    Okay, that makes a lot of sense. In your book The Shyness Breakthrough, is that really what you talk about is how to teach these different skills to your kids?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    That’s absolutely what we talk about. What we do is we point out not only the skills, but we have a variety of different scenarios, many of which we talked about here, that have to do with the kind of skills that you need. Not only how practice these skills, but how to get ready, how to set people up to do this.
  • Karen Quinn:    As a parent, if you have a shy child you can’t just hope they’re going to grow out of it. You really have a job to do and that is to try to start to help your child build the different skill sets that they are going to need to put themselves in situations that may be a little uncomfortable or a little unfamiliar. But they’re skills and they can learn them. It’s our job I think as parents to teach our kids these skills.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    It’s the same thing whether it’s a reading skill, for example, a mathematical skill. The idea is we assume that because these are social skills that everybody should know how to do these so we have less patience for this.
  • Karen Quinn:    It’s not natural. It’s not natural that everybody should know how to go breakthrough when other people are talking to each other and how to walk up and introduce yourself or join in the play. If kids are playing, how do you join in when they’re already playing and you weren’t there at the beginning?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    The other thing too is as families are getting smaller what happens is kids are losing the opportunity to acquire those skills at home. You’re an only child or the spacing is really large. What we have to do is we have to make sure that we give the kids an opportunity to do this. As a parent you have to take the time to do this, to make sure that your kid has the opportunity to play. Not just necessary structured play where the adults are organizing the activity.These kids need free play where they not only learn how to converse, but they also learn how to negotiate, how to deal with conflict, how to deal with frustration. Kids learn that for the first time when they’re playing with each other. What worries me, and we talk a lot about it in the book, is that as we’re taking play away and as we’re getting play more structured or organized, when kids are playing online rather than free play with each other, we’re losing these negotiating and interpersonal skills.You can acquire them later on, but like anything else, the longer you wait the harder they are to learn. If you don’t learn to read when you’re four or five years old, you can learn to read when you’re 15 but it’s going to take you much longer.
  • Karen Quinn:    It’s harder.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    It’s going to be much harder. The idea is to make it a point to do these things with your kids.
  • Karen Quinn:    Let me ask you one last question, because we’re running out of time but I’m curious about this. Do you find that shy kids are more likely to be teased or bullied than kids who seem to have the skills that you’re talking about?
  • Bernardo Carducci:    Here’s what it is. Here’s the mediating influence. If you look at bullying, people who were bullies tend to select their target. They tend to select people who are easily aroused. They get the rise out of the individuals. They tend to select victims who are alone. By definition, shy people tend to have fewer friends so they don’t have the social support. And they tend to be easily aroused. We say that if you want to minimize bullying of your child, what you do is you teach your child how to make friends. Bullies are not going to pick on people who have a lot of friends. They’re not stupid.
  • Karen Quinn:    Right. They don’t want to get beaten up.
  • Bernardo Carducci:    They’re actually pretty smart. What they do is they select those people. We say if you want to be a better person, in general – this is kids or adults – have friends. Make friends.
  • Karen Quinn:    That makes a lot of sense. Bernie, I would love to keep talking but we’re out of time. I want to thank you for coming on today.As a reminder, this is Karen Quinn, The 30 Minute Mom on We’ve been talking with Doctor Bernardo Carducci, Bernie, the author of The Shyness Breakthrough which is available at bookstores or online. I’m definitely going to get my copy of the book because I get so many questions about shy children. Now I know that it’s a skill set and I really want to study this further myself so that I can help more parents help their kids.If you are a parent of a shy child this seems like a really good book to get and you really want to think about starting to teach these skills, these social skills, to your child so that they don’t have to suffer being alone or not knowing how to join in the fun with their friends.I hope that you all join us next week when we talk about another fascinating subject, which is why children lie. I don’t know, do your kids lie? According to the expert we’re going to meet next week, they probably do. The question is what can you do about it? Tune in and find out. Until then, I’m Karen Quinn wishing you all the best for your parenting success.

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