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,”
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 topic that is not going to go away soon.”
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. You can tell they want to interact, but it’s overwhelming to them.”
Hints of shyness crop up surprisingly early, 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. 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
That sensitivity isn’t a bad thing. Experts who study shyness stress there’s nothing inherently problematic about being reserved in social situations.
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. Yet shyness can have downsides. Unsurprisingly, shy kids tend to spend less time playing with other children, 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. “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.
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.
Fortunately, most kids learn healthier ways to manage their shyness over time. “We rarely see an inhibited toddler become the most exuberant adult. 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 2-year-olds were asked 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. Information gathered from several different Psychologists which have studied their new insights into the causes and effects of childhood shyness.