Psychologists have new insights into the causes and effects of childhood shyness.
Some kids find great delight in standing in front of the class to present their pet turtle or souvenir seashells. But a shy child? “Show-and-tell might be their worst nightmare,” says Robert J. Coplan, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Show-and-tell is only the start. For shy children, every birthday party and trip to the playground may be fraught with worry.
The good news: Most socially reserved kids grow into adults who can speak at a business meeting or mingle at a party without panic setting in. Yet childhood shyness does have drawbacks, including an elevated risk of social anxiety.
As psychologists learn more about the factors that determine where a child falls along the shyness spectrum, they’re also finding ways to prevent bashfulness from becoming a setback.
“Kids want to be engaging in fun activities with other kids,” says Heather Henderson, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Waterloo. “Shyness is a [research] topic that is not going to go away soon.”
The coy smile
When describing a child’s temperament, parents, teachers and friends often toss around the “shy” label. But scientists have their own way of defining the term. Shyness — also known as behavioral inhibition — is not quite the same as introversion. Introverted kids just like spending time alone, happier to curl up with a book or build a Lego tower than to join the neighborhood kids in a game of tag. Behaviorally inhibited children, on the other hand, crave social interaction. The problem is, those interactions are also a source of stress.
“The prototypical shy child is timid, with a coy smile,” says Koraly Pérez-Edgar, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Penn State University. “You can tell they want to interact, but it’s overwhelming to them.”
Hints of shyness crop up surprisingly early. Longitudinal studies initiated in the 1980s and 1990s by Pérez-Edgar’s former advisor Jerome Kagan, PhD, at Harvard University, and Nathan Fox, PhD, at the University of Maryland, have shown the first signs of behavioral inhibition are evident well before a child’s first birthday.
As early as four months of age, some babies show strong responses to novel stimuli, explains Pérez-Edgar. While most babies might stare at a new mobile or coo in response to a new musical toy, a handful react with signs of distress, arching their backs and crying. Those babies are more likely to become the shy kids in the classroom. “Over time the sensitivity to novelty gets channeled into a sensitivity to social novelty,” she says.
That sensitivity isn’t a bad thing. Experts who study shyness stress there’s nothing inherently problematic about being reserved in social situations. Human society benefits from having members all along the exuberance spectrum, says Coplan. “It’s good to have some people who are more cautious, more attuned to threats in the environment,” he says.
Being slow to warm up may also be a social benefit, at least in some ways. Shyness may help grease the wheels of our interactions with others. Research dating back decades has documented that behaviors associated with shyness — such as an averted gaze or that classic coy smile — tend to be perceived positively by others.
Yet shyness can have downsides. Unsurprisingly, shy kids tend to spend less time playing with other children, notes Coplan. And peer relations are important for developing social and communicative skills. “Kids learn things from peers in a way they don’t learn from anyone else,” he says. “If they’re not joining in, they could miss out on some of that good stuff.”
Shy kids may also be more prone to negative experiences when they do hang out with other kids. They may be misunderstood by peers who interpret their shyness as being unfriendly, for instance. “Sometimes they get rejected by other children, and they can be easy targets for bullying,” says Coplan.
But anxiety may be the biggest risk for bashful children. While most shy kids become well-adjusted adults, as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of very shy children develop social anxiety, says Pérez-Edgar — a risk four times higher than average.
High anxiety can put them at risk for other problems, including depression and substance abuse. The latter might seem counterintuitive, since quiet, timid kids aren’t exactly thought of as thrill-seekers. But anxious adolescents may turn to drugs and alcohol as social lubricants, says Pérez-Edgar. “One of the ways they’re coping is through drug use, and especially alcohol use.”
Fortunately, most kids learn healthier ways to manage their shyness over time, says Henderson. “We rarely see an inhibited toddler become the most exuberant adult,” she says. “But many don’t stay highly shy. They still have those reactions, but with time and experience they learn to regulate them.”
In fact, some children appear to begin regulating their shyness even before they’re out of diapers. In a recent study, Cristina Colonnesi, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, and colleagues asked 2-year-olds to perform animal sounds in front of strangers. They rated the children’s expressions of shyness during the performances as either positive (smiling while nervously touching their face or averting their gaze) or negative (the same behaviors without a smile). They found that children who exhibited more negative expressions of shyness were also more anxious. In addition to serving a social function, learning to express shyness in positive ways may help children regulate their anxiety, the authors suggest (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014).
Shyness in the brain
To understand how some kids successfully regulate their shy tendencies, psychologists are taking a closer look at what happens in the timid child’s brain. Among them is Christy Wolfe, PhD, a psychologist at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
While studying working memory, Wolfe and her colleagues noticed that shy kids tended to perform slightly worse than their more outgoing counterparts. She did some digging and found numerous reports of timid children underperforming in tests of working memory, inhibitory control, language and other cognitive areas.
The effects were small but consistent, Wolfe says. But was shyness truly affecting a child’s cognitive performance, she wondered, or did underlying cognitive differences shape the child’s personality?
Wolfe’s research suggests that both types of scenarios might be true at different points in development. In a longitudinal study, she and her colleagues found that babies who showed better cognitive function at 5 months were more fearful at 10 months, suggesting that early cognitive abilities might influence temperament. But kids who were very shy at age 3 didn’t perform as well on a working memory task at age 4, as previous work had indicated (International Journal of Behavioral Development, 2014).
“Your early cognitive ability might be setting the stage for how you interact with the environment,” Wolfe explains, “but as you get older it looks like shyness is actually contributing to your cognitive development.”
Being shy, she suggests, may borrow brainpower that could be better spent on solving problems. “We have a limited working memory capacity. While part of the shy child’s brain is working hard at a [cognitive] task, another part is worrying about being evaluated,” Wolfe explains. “Their attention is divided.”
Wolfe has also looked at brain function in shy kids. In a study being prepared for publication, she used EEG to compare brain activation among four groups — both shy and non-shy kids who performed higher or lower than average on tests of executive function. High-performing shy kids showed notably different patterns of activation than kids in the other three groups, who looked similar to one another. This suggests that shy kids who do well have figured out some kind of neural workaround for their inhibition, she says.
Other labs are also exploring the neurobiology of shyness. In several studies using fMRI, Fox, Pérez-Edgar and colleagues have shown that adolescents who showed heightened sensitivity to novelty as babies have more reactivity in the amygdala — the dollop of brain tissue that serves as a primary monitor for fearful stimuli. However, it’s not clear yet whether that reactivity is a cause or a consequence of temperament.
Either way, it appears that controlling that reflexive reaction is key to positive outcomes. In a variety of studies over several years, Pérez-Edgar has scanned the brains of more than 100 shy adolescents. She’s found that amygdala reactivity in shy kids looks similar whether or not they have anxiety. In other words, the kids who are anxiety-free yet bashful still experience that hard-wired response to social novelty. “But for one reason or another, the kids who remain healthy are better able to regulate that initial response,” she says.
Now she’s trying to figure out how they do so. “We know most [shy] kids don’t go on to have anxiety. For those kids who actually do become anxious, something kept them on that trajectory,” she explains. She believes attention can be that tether.
Pérez-Edgar and colleagues have looked at attention biases among adolescents who were behaviorally inhibited as babies. They found those who showed heightened attention toward threatening stimuli, such as pictures of angry faces, were more socially withdrawn than those who weren’t as clued into threats in their environment (Emotion, 2010; Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 2011).
“If we have a bias to things that we perceive as threatening, we start to see the environment as threatening,” she says. Helping such kids learn to focus their attention away from threats might help them change their behaviors — and perhaps even change the underlying biological mechanisms that put them at risk for anxiety.
Attention is just one of the influences that helps chart a timid child’s future course. While the seeds of shyness may be biological, environmental factors also affect where a child lands on the exuberance spectrum.
Parenting is a significant contributor. Concerned parents may avoid putting their shy children in situations that make them uncomfortable. But singing along in music class and playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a classmate’s birthday party help children learn how to cope with those uncomfortable situations. When parents are overprotective, children miss out on opportunities to practice regulating feelings of shyness, increasing the risk for anxiety, Coplan says.
That can be a hard message for parents to hear. “When you’re looking at a child feeling shy, the first thing you want to do is swoop down and protect them,” Henderson says. “The trick for parents is to back off a little, to be supportive but let the child take little steps to doing things on her own.”
Early social encounters are important, too. Studies have shown that shy kids who go to daycare early on tend to be less anxious than those who stay home with a parent or nanny, Henderson says. Other evidence suggests that having just one good friend can make a huge difference for a timid child. “Experience really matters,” she says.
Researchers are still working out which experiences are most important for helping shy kids thrive. But in the meantime, they stress that being shy doesn’t have to be a problem. “Being shy is not a disorder. It’s okay to be slow to warm up,” says Pérez-Edgar.
“My hallway is littered with formerly inhibited people, because [a research career] suits our temperamental traits,” she adds. “In the right environment, all of these children can thrive.”
Weir, K. (2014, November 1). Born bashful. Monitor on Psychology, 45(10). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/11/bashful