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Is shy something you feel or something you are? According to a new study, it could be either.
Whether shyness is part of your child’s personality or just something they feel when they are in front of a group of strangers, it is a typical experience, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Society for Research in Child Development.
“Shyness is characterized by fear and nervousness in new social situations or when being the center of attention,” said lead study author Kristie Poole, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, studying social and emotional development.
To look at shyness, researchers brought 152 children ages 7 and 8 into a lab and told them they would be giving a speech that would be filmed and shown to other kids, the study said.
Parents reported their child’s level of shyness tendencies leading up to the study, while researchers checked the children for nervous behavior, such as averting their gaze; their physiological danger responses through an electrocardiogram; and their affect response through how nervous the child reported they were, Poole said.
The study revealed about 10% of the children showed a high level of stress giving the speech as well as a pattern of relatively high levels of shyness over time, according to their parents. This finding provides evidence that shyness may be a part of these children’s temperament, Poole added.
Approximately 25% of study participants were not reported to be shy by their parents but showed a higher level of social stress reactivity from giving the speech, Poole said.
“It is likely that the experience of … shyness in response to a speech task is a relatively common, normative experience for children at this age,” Poole said. “For a smaller group of temperamentally shy children, however, being the center of attention may be stressful across time and various contexts.”
The study did have some limitations, notably that the children studied were largely White and from the same socioeconomic background, said Koraly Pérez-Edgar, associate director of the Social Science Research Institute and professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University. Pérez-Edgar was not involved in the research.
“We need larger, more diverse, studies that can help us see the emergence of groups of children across communities, and in large enough numbers, that we can track how well these children do over time,” Pérez-Edgar said.
A shy temperament isn’t always as socially valued as more outgoing personalities, but that doesn’t mean there is something wrong, Pérez-Edgar said.
“In the West, we tend to think about the exuberant, sociable ideal,” she said in an email. “We should step back and think about the wide range of traits and their unique contributions.”
Everyone can feel shy at times depending on the setting, Pérez-Edgar said. And those who are particularly shy often have happy social lives — they just aren’t likely to be the bubbliest person in a crowded room, she added.
But there are things to watch out for. Of the most persistently shy children, about half will develop an anxiety disorder, Pérez-Edgar said.
“Concerns arise for the most extreme kids, who cannot get over their shyness and have difficulty functioning at school, having friends, or engaging in typical activities (clubs, sports),” she said. “That is when parents should think about intervening.”
While shyness is not a problem in itself necessarily, families should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety particularly in their shy children, Pérez-Edgar said.
“Importantly, however, we know that not all shy children are alike, and that many shy children grow up to be well-adjusted adults,” Poole said.
If your child is avoiding situations that are important or could be enjoyable for them because they are feeling nervous, it might be time to intervene, said Dr. Erika Chiappini, a child and adolescent psychologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
That could mean “not speaking up in class, trouble making or keeping friends, and not joining activities they may otherwise enjoy,” she said via email.
Instead of labeling the child as shy, describe what you see and normalize their feelings, Chiappini advised.
She recommended saying something like: “You seem a little nervous or unsure about who everyone is/what to say. We haven’t met them before and that can feel a little uncomfortable.”
From there, you can prompt them to engage when they are ready — with assurance that you will be there to support them, she added.
The more we avoid situations, the more anxiety we will have about them in the future, which can make them harder to do the next time, Chiappini said. But that doesn’t mean to push your child into the deep end.
“We may have to tackle a situation gradually. For example, you may have to encourage your child just to make eye contact during an outing before expecting them to ask a question of someone,” she said.
And it you are concerned that the shy behavior is inhibiting your child, you can reach out for support from your child’s pediatrician or school counselor to help you find resources, Chiappini said.
There are therapies with and without medication support that can be particularly helpful for kids and teens experiencing anxiety, she added.