A stroll through the research literature on shyness can be a little alarming to the parent of a wallflower. Studies have linked behavioral inhibition in children — a trait referring not only to shyness but also to extreme caution about new situations — with an increased chance of developing anxiety disorders later. And research suggests that the parental urge to protect a cautious kid may make matters worse.
But psychologists and child development specialists have also come up with ways to support shy kids. The key, said Sandee McClowry, a psychologist at New York University, is to nudge children out of their comfort zones without trying to change their fundamental natures.
“That acceptance of the child is a huge, huge thing,” McClowry told Live Science.
Psychologists define shyness as a tendency to withdraw from social encounters, and a tendency to feel awkward and tense when social interaction does occur. Researchers who study shyness often use the broader concept of behavioral inhibition to capture kids whose anxiety includes both feeling shy around people and also in new situations.
Shyness is part of a child’s temperament, and psychologists have found it to be a very persistent trait. In a study published in 1988 in the journal Child Development, researchers compared observations of 4-year-olds with observations of those same kids at 7.5 years. The kids who were timid at 4 generally remained so at 7, while the outgoing kids stayed outgoing. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
But other studies have found ramifications of this wallflower personality. Another 1988 study, which used data from people born in the late 1920s, found that men who had been shy in childhood were less likely to marry later and have children later, and generally had less stable careers than those who were outgoing.
Shy women, on the other hand, were more likely than outgoing women to marry, have children and stay at home. For both men and women, the researchers wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology, the pattern seemed to be a withdrawal from the world. These results might be different today because of changing gender roles. Still, as the researchers wrote, they highlight that a person’s temperament can alter the course of their life via the slow accumulation of choices people make and the opportunities they have.
More concerning are studies linking behavioral inhibition to later anxiety. A meta-analysis of seven studies published in 2012 Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that kids with the most extreme behavioral inhibition were more than seven times more likely to later develop social anxiety disorder than kids without behavioral inhibition. About 15 percent of children show extreme behavioral inhibition, the researchers wrote, and about half of that group will develop social anxiety.
“In general in our society, extraversion and being able to speak up and express ideas verbally is valued a lot,” said Soo Hyun Rhee, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, who studies the links between child temperament and later mental health problems. Thus, Rhee said, shy kids can slip between the cracks in the classroom and in other situations.
For kids with extreme shyness, the American Psychological Association recommends looking for professional help. A therapist can help children (or even adults) come up with strategies for managing their anxieties or choosing activities that fit their temperament.
It’s easy to want to protect a kid who struggles in new situations, but researchers advise against going too far. In one study that followed kids from age 3 to 6, kids who were behaviorally inhibited at age 3 where more likely to remain behaviorally inhibited at age 6 if their caregivers were overprotective, according to the findings published in August in the Journal of Research in Personality.
“Parents who overprotect these kids do a lot of harm,” McClowry said. The goal, she
said, is for parents to strike a balance. One thing that may help is learning to “scaffold” a child’s experiences. In education, scaffolding refers to providing more support in the beginning and then gradually allowing students to become more independent. Scaffolding strategies can help inhibited kids break out of their shell. [8 Tried-and-True Tips for Talking to Preschoolers]
“You take very, very small, incremental steps and provide a lot of reinforcement,” McClowry said. For example, if a kid wants to go to sleep-away camp but is afraid of spending the night away from home, parents might start by having other kids over for a sleepover at their own house, and then move up to a night away at grandma’s.
Parents should pay attention to the child’s comfort level throughout this scaffolding process, and be accepting if the kid hits a limit. Especially with older children, parents can talk through the process, McClowry said: How did the child feel, what helped them feel better, what did they wish they’d done afterwards?
Researchers have also found that parenting that is warm and responsive to a child’s needs helps break the link between shyness and potential mental health problems. A 2014 study found that shyness in kids was linked to an increased risk of later anxiety only for children who did not have a secure attachment to their caregivers. Secure attachment refers to a nurturing relationship in which kids feel free to explore but also know they can return to their caregivers for reassurance.