Shyness is a psychological state that causes a person to feel discomfort in social situations in ways that interfere with enjoyment or that cause avoidance of social contacts altogether.
Shyness can vary from mild feelings to moderately uncomfortable in social circumstances to debilitating levels of anxiety that interfere in children with the process of socialization (social withdrawal). Shyness is a personality trait that affects a child's temperament. Some infants are born shy and more sensitive. Some of them are quiet when new people enter a room. A shy baby might sink his head into his mother's shoulder, while a baby who is outgoing might smile or squeal with delight when someone new visits. Some children may feel shy in certain situations, like when meeting new people. Other children may learn to be shy because of experiences in school or at home. As of 2004, research tended to distinguish shyness from introversion. Introverts simply prefer solitary to social activities but do not fear social encounters as shy people do, while extroverts prefer social to solitary activities.
Evidence suggests a genetic component to shyness. Studies on the biological basis of shyness have shown that shyness in adults can often be traced as far back as the age of three. A Harvard study of two-year olds showed that, even at that age, widely different personality types can be recognized: roughly 25 percent of children are bold, sociable, and spontaneous regardless of the novelty of the situation, while 20 percent are shy and restrained in new situations. The remaining 55 percent of newborns fall between the extremes of shyness and boldness. These two basic temperaments were also recognized in studies examining infants as young as four months old. As children grow, their shy temperament tends to display itself in predictable ways: for example, in play groups at age seven, shy children play by themselves, while more outgoing children seek to play together in groups. Evidence of a genetic predisposition for shyness is found in parents and grandparents of shy infants who report childhood shyness more often than relatives of children who are not shy. Further evidence for a congenital link to shyness is found in studies that show that identical twins (who have identical genes) are more likely to be shy than fraternal twins (who are no more alike than other siblings).
Research shows, however, that 25 percent of the time genetic predisposition to shyness does not develop into shyness. Some researchers believe that a shy temperament may require environmental triggers, such as insecurity of attachment in the form of difficult relationships with parents, family conflict or chaos, frequent criticism, a dominating older sibling, or a stressful school environment.
Research has also identified a strong cultural link to shyness. In the United States, shyness surveys typically show that shyness is highest among Asian Americans and lowest among Jewish Americans. Using culturally sensitive adaptations of the Stanford Shyness Inventory, researchers in eight countries administered the inventory to groups of 18 to 21 year olds. Results showed that a large proportion of participants in all cultures reported experiencing shyness to a considerable degree—from 31 percent in Israel to 57 percent in Japan and 55 percent in Taiwan. In Mexico, Germany, India, and Canada, shyness levels were close to the U.S figure of 40 percent. In all countries, shyness is perceived as more negative than positive, with 60 percent or more considering shyness to be a problem. There is no gender difference in reported shyness, but males tend to conceal their shyness because it is considered a feminine trait in most countries. For example, in Mexico, males report shyness less often than females do.
When shyness is intense, it can often lead to social anxiety disorder or to avoidant personality disorder, both characterized by the avoidance of interpersonal contacts accompanied by significant fears of embarrassment in social interaction. According to the most recent statistics, provided by the National Co-morbidity Survey—carried out in 1994—approximately 40 percent of Americans consistently report since the early 1970s that they are shy to the extent of considering it a problem in their lives. Subsequent research showed that the percentage of problem-related shyness gradually increased during the 1990s to nearly 50 percent. The National Co-morbidity Survey results were also indicative of a lifetime prevalence of social anxiety of 13.3 percent, making it the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the United States.
Excessive shyness usually leads to social withdrawal. If it is based on social fear and anxiety despite a desire to interact socially—such as in children who are unhappy because they are unable to make friends, it is called "conflicted shyness"; if it is based on the lack of a strong motivation to engage in social interaction, it is called "social disinterest." Both types are detected at an early age. The major behavioral components of excessive shyness in children are as follows:
- difficulty talking, stammering, stuttering, blushing, shaking, sweating hands when around other people
- difficulty thinking of things to say to people
- absence of outgoing mannerisms such as good eye contact or an easy smile
- reluctance to play with other kids, to go to school, to visit relatives and neighbors
Parents may worry about if their shy infant, child, or teenager has a socialization problem. Parents should know that a child who seems mildly anxious or quiet at certain times may be shy. The best thing they can do is to help the child feel comfortable about being shy, by explaining that shyness can be a normal part of growing up. Teasing or being critical can make a shy child even more afraid to be around people. Sometimes, just encouraging a quiet child to play with others helps the child overcome shy feelings. Although many children who are shy remain shy all of their lives, many others overcome it in time as they develop social skills. Many children overcome shyness by themselves, some through associating with younger children, which allows them to display leadership behavior, still others through contact with other sociable children. Nothing assists in overcoming shyness more than experiencing social successes, as when a child takes the initial risk of engaging in some social activity that is rewarded, for example, in successfully developing friendships.
The use of video games, CD-ROM games, Web surfing, and other computer-related marvels all interfere with the time required to seek out direct contact with others for fun and friendship. Increasingly, social time is being replaced with the anonymous exchange of information within an externally imposed medium that effectively promotes shyness in young people. While some shy children may benefit from using the anonymity and structural control features of cyberspace, the danger is that for many others virtual on-line reality may become a substitute for the reality of close human relationships. Many parents are concerned because their young children prefer "chat time" on their computers more than actually talking face to face with other children, so these children may not socialize as much in the homes of neighbors and friends.
When to call the doctor
When a child is excessively shy, when shyness is persistent and results in high levels of anxiety in social settings and leads to social withdrawal and parents feel that their child is unhappy being shy, they should seek professional help. It is very important to determine if there is a social anxiety disorder, and if so, what treatment can best help the child overcome shyness. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are trained to help parents sort out whether their child's level of shyness is normal introversion or indicative of a disorder.
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American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016–3007. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
American Psychological Association (APA). 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002–4242. Web site: <www.apa.org>.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). 8730 Georgia Avenue, Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Web site: <www.adaa.org>.
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Monique Laberge, Ph.D.
Avoidant personality disorder—Chronic and longstanding fear of negative evaluation and tendency to avoid interpersonal situations without a guarantee of acceptance and support, accompanied by significant fears of embarrassment and shame in social interaction.
Extroversion—A personal preference for socially engaging activities and settings.
Extrovert—A person who is outgoing and performs well socially.
Introversion—A personal preference for solitary, non-social activities and settings.
Personality—The organized pattern of behaviors and attitudes that makes a human being distinctive. Personality is formed by the ongoing interaction of temperament, character, and environment.
Social anxiety disorder—Persistent avoidance and/or discomfort in social situations that significantly interferes with functioning.
Social withdrawal—Avoidance of social contacts.
Socialization—The process by which new members of a social group are integrated in the group.
Temperament—A person's natural disposition or inborn combination of mental and emotional traits.