Shyness In Children - Highlights Of Current Research (2008)
Biological, Personality (child & parental), and cultural components of shyness in children.
By Dr. Sarah Itzhaki
BIOLOGICAL COMPONENTS OF SHYNESS IN CHILDREN:
Extremely shy children have higher than normal activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that controls emotions and triggers reactions to anxiety. They respond more strongly to stress and are anxious in situations that non-shy peers find safe. Indeed, as much as 90% of an “extremely shy” group of preschool children also met the criteria for an existing anxiety disorder. (1)(2)
BIRTH WEIGHT AND SHYNESS IN CHILDREN:
Young adults who were born with an extremely low birth weight (ELBW: 500-1000 grams) but were otherwise healthy are shyer and less extroverted than their normal birth weight counterparts. This suggests that exposure to stress before, during or even shortly after birth can have a strong influence on social development. (3)
EFFECT OF CHILD PERSONALITY ON SHYNESS:
The effect of the child personality on development to adulthood (4) -
Three types of personality characteristics in children age 4 to 23 were related to shyness in children and aggressiveness based on assessments by their parents:
1. Overcontrollers: introverts with low emotional stability and low self-esteem who are socially withdrawn
2. Undercontrollers: children with low emotional stability, low agreeableness and a low level of conscientiousness
3. Resilients: children who are slightly more sociable with above average emotional stability, an above average IQ and above average academic achievement.
Overcontrollers were always shyer than undercontrollers and resilients. Undercontrollers were always more aggressive. But the levels of shyness decreased in the overcontrollers between ages 4 and 23. This may be because the effect of the childhood personality on childhood shyness gradually faded as the child grew older. For example, in stable social environments overcontrolled children may become accustomed to their (self-selected) peer group so that they no longer behave shyly in the presence of familiar others.
On the other hand, shyness in undercontrollers increased, which showed as a slight increase of anxiety symptoms at early adulthood. These findings provide some evidence that undercontrollers not only tend to ‘‘move against’’ the world, but increasingly begin to ‘‘move away’’ from it as well.
Both overcontrollers and undercontrollers assumed adult social roles, such as leaving the parental home, establishing a first romantic relationship and getting a part-time job, later than resilient participants, who were more socially skilled. These results demonstrate the importance of considering the relationship between a person (child) and the environment in order to explain both change and stability in personality between childhood and adulthood.
EFFECT OF MATERNAL PERSONALITY ON SHYNESS IN CHILDREN:
The effect of maternal influence on a child’s ability to cope (2) -
Three types of maternal personalities and parenting characteristics were related to shyness in children and adjustment to kindergarten (or preschool) in a sample of 197 five-year-old children: (2)
Exacerbates the relationship between shyness in children and maladjustment to kindergarten by presenting the shy child with a model of anxious behaviors and highlighting risks and dangers in the environment to them. Overprotecting children, perhaps by intervening too early and too often or by simply removing the child from socially challenging and stressful environments, may inhibit the shy child’s development of appropriate coping strategies. It may compound the difficulties that a shy child already experiences when starting kindergarten. This appears to increase the risk of anxiety and feeling worse about connecting with his or her peers at school. It must not be ruled out that ELBW babies (3) were exposed to fretful parenting due to their status at birth; thus, they have shown more shy behavior.
Warm/supportive and authoritative parenting:
May promote positive social-emotional regulation and development of social skills. This is very important for shy children. The newly acquired emotional and social skills might serve to improve the quality and quantity of the shy child’s social interactions with peers. Positive relationships at school might, in turn, serve to “protect” the child against the negative emotions and poor self-perceptions that may accompany shyness in children.
May create an environment that is too stimulating for shy children. Moreover, extroverted parents may tend to be permissive, which may not provide enough structure to support the shy child’s social needs. Thus, maternal modeling of non-shy behaviors in and of itself may not be enough to assist the shy child, who may benefit more from the emotional and social support inherent in an authoritative parenting style.
SHYNESS IN CHILDREN - DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE:
A. Cultural differences in attitude and the prevalence of shyness in children(5)
Parents in North American or Western society typically react to shy-inhibited behavior with concern and disappointment. However, shy-inhibited behavior in Chinese or other Eastern cultures is more common and receives parents’ acceptance and approval. Shy-inhibited North American children receive fewer positive responses and more rejection from peers, whereas shy-inhibited Chinese children often receive positive responses. These different adult and peer attitudes and responses reflect cultural values and socialization goals. In traditional Chinese culture, shy and wary behavior is associated with virtuous qualities such as modesty, cautiousness and self-control. Socially sensitive and restrained behavior is often considered to indicate accomplishment and maturity, and shy and sensitive children are deemed well-behaved and adjusted. These children perform well socially and academically during childhood and adolescence. They are more likely than others to obtain leadership status and success. Given the social and cultural approval, it is not surprising that shy Chinese children perceive themselves positively and do not feel lonely or depressed as opposed to shy children in western societies.
These cross-cultural differences in how shyness is perceived by parents and peers emphasize that it is more the attitudes, and not shyness in itself, that have the most detrimental bearings on the mental health of shy children.
SHYNESS IN CHILDREN - DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE:
B. Shyness in children and drug abuse -
A 35-year study that followed 1242 African Americans from first grade to approximately age 42 explored the impact of multiple early education indicators on later problem drug use. This study revealed that first graders characterized as shy by their teachers were less likely to develop problem drug use in adulthood. (6)
These studies further emphasize the biological and environmental factors with regard to shyness in children. They shed light on the consequences of shyness in children in different cultures and highlight possible positive outcomes.
Taken together, the studies show that parents should be included in intervention and prevention programs designed to improve the development of shy and anxious young children. No less important is the factor that parents and non-shy peers should be educated to accept and support the shy child.
1. Fox AS , Shelton SE, Oakes TR, Davidson RJ, Kalin NH. Trait-Like Brain Activity during Adolescence Predicts Anxious Temperament in Primates. PLoS One, 3(7): e2570 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002570
2. Coplan RJ, Arbeau KA and Armer M. Don’t Fret, Be Supportive! Maternal Characteristics Linking Child Shyness to Psychosocial and School Adjustment
in Kindergarten. J Abnorm Child Psychol 2008;36:359–371.
3. Schmidt LA, Miskovic V, Boyle MH and Saigal S. Shyness and Timidity in Young Adults Who Were Born at Extremely Low Birth Weight. Pediatrics 2008;122:e181–e187.
4. Dennissen JJA, Asendorpf JB, and van Aken MAG. Childhood Personality Predicts Long-Term Trajectories of Shyness and Aggressiveness in the Context of Demographic Transitions in Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Personality 2008;76(1): 67-99.
5. Chen X and French DC. Children’s Social Competence in Cultural Context. Ann Rev Psychol. 2008;59:591-616.
6. Fothergill KE, Ensminger ME, Green KM, Crum RM, Robertson J, and Juon HS. The Impact of Early School Behavior and Educational Achievement on Adult Drug Use Disorders: A Prospective Study. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 2008;92:191–199.