The Shy Child
Shyness 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.
What is shyness?
The 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. Increases in heart rate and blood pressure may accompany these feelings. 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).
Shyness 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.
Children 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 age 4 or 5. Early adolescence ushers in a peak of self-consciousness (Buss, 1986).
What situations make children feel shy?
New 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.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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