The Shy Child
is a common but little understood emotion. Everyone has felt ambivalent or
self-conscious in new social situations. However, at times shyness may
interfere with optimal social development and restrict children's learning.
This digest (1) describes types and manifestations of shyness, (2) reviews
research on genetic, temperamental, and environmental influences on
shyness, (3) distinguishes between normal and problematic shyness, and (4)
suggests ways to help the shy child.
basic feeling of shyness is universal, and may have evolved as an adaptive
mechanism used to help individuals cope with novel social stimuli. Shyness
is felt as a mix of emotions, including fear and interest, tension and
pleasantness. Increase in heart rate and blood pressure may occur. An
observer recognizes shyness by an averted, downward gaze and physical and
verbal reticence. The shy person's speech is often soft, tremulous, or
hesitant. Younger children may suck their thumbs: some act coy,
alternately smiling and pulling away (Izard and Hyson, 1986).
is distinguishable from two related behavior patterns; wariness and social
disengagement. Infant wariness of strangers lacks the ambivalent approach/avoidance
quality that characterizes shyness. Some older children may prefer
solitary play and appear to have low needs for social interaction, but
experience none of the tension of the genuinely shy child.
may be vulnerable to shyness at particular developmental points. Fearful
shyness in response to new adults emerges in infancy. Cognitive advances
in self-awareness bring greater social sensitivity in the second year.
Self-conscious shyness-the possibility of embarrassment-appears at 4 or 5.
Early adolescence ushers in a peak of self-consciousness (Buss, 1986).
Situations Make Children Feel Shy?
social encounters are the most frequent causes of shyness, especially if
the shy person feels herself to be the focus of attention. An "epidemic
of shyness" (Zimbardo and Radl, 1981) has been attributed to the
rapidly changing social environment and competitive pressures of school
and work with which 1980s children and adults must cope. Adults who
constantly call attention to what others think of the child, or who allow
the child little autonomy, may encourage feelings of shyness.
Are Some Children More Shy than Others?
children are naturally shy: they are more likely than other children to
react to new social situations with shy behavior. Even these children,
however, may show shyness only in certain kinds of social encounters.
Researchers have implicated both nurture and nature in these individual
Some aspects of shyness are learned. Children's cultural background and family environment offer models of social behavior. Chinese children in day care have been found to be more socially reticent than Caucasians and Swedish children report more social discomfort than Americans. Some parents, by labeling their children as shy, appear to encourage a self- fulfilling prophecy; Adults may cajole coyly shy children into social interaction, thus reinforcing shy behavior (Zimbardo and Radl, 1981).
There is growing evidence of a hereditary or temperamental basis for some variations of dispositional shyness. In fact, heredity may play a larger part in shyness than in any other personality trait (Daniels and Plomin, 1985). Adoption studies can predict shyness in adopted children from the biological mother's sociability. Extremely inhibited children show physiological differences from uninhibited children, including higher and more stable heart rates. From ages 2 to 5, the most inhibited children continue to show reticent behavior with new peers and adults (Reznick and others, 1986). Patterns of social passivity or inhibition are remarkably consistent in longitudinal studies of personality development.
this evidence, most researchers emphasize that genetic influences probably
account for only a small proportion of self-labeled shyness. Even
hereditary predispositions can be modified. Adopted children do acquire
some of the adoptive parents' social styles (Daniels and Plomin, 1985),
and extremely inhibited toddlers sometimes become more socially
comfortable through their parents' efforts (Reznick and others, 1986).
Is Shyness a Problem?
can be a normal, adaptive response to potentially overwhelming social
experience. By being somewhat shy, children can withdraw temporarily and
gain a sense of control. Generally, as children gain experience with
unfamiliar people, shyness wanes. In the absence of other difficulties,
shy children have not been found to be significantly at-risk for
psychiatric or behavior problems (Honig, 1987). In contrast, children who
exhibit extreme shyness which is neither context-specific nor transient
may be at some risk. Such children may lack social skills or have poor
self-images (Sarafinio, 1986). Shy children have been found to be less
competent at initiating play with peers. School-age children who rate
themselves as shy tend to like themselves less and consider themselves
less friendly and more passive than their non-shy peers (Zimbardo and Radl,
1981). Such factors negatively affect others' perceptions. Zimbardo
reports that shy people are often judged by peers to be less friendly and
likeable than non-shy people. For all these reasons, shy children may be
neglected by peers, and have few chances to develop social skills.
Children who continue to be excessively shy into adolescence and adulthood
describe themselves as being more lonely, and having fewer close friends
and relationships with members of the opposite sex, than their peers.
for Helping a Shy Child
Furnished on request.
Dr. Félix E. F. Larocca
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