Some kids find great delight in standing in front of the class to present their pet turtle or souvenir seashells. But a shy child? “Show-and-tell might be their worst
nightmare,” says Robert J. Coplan, PhD, a developmental
psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Show-and-tell is only the start. For shy children, every
birthday party and trip to the playground may be fraught with
The good news: Most socially reserved kids grow into
adults who can speak at a business meeting or mingle at a
party without panic setting in. Yet childhood shyness does have
drawbacks, including an elevated risk of social anxiety.
As psychologists learn more about the factors that determine
where a child falls along the shyness spectrum, they’re also
finding ways to prevent bashfulness from becoming a setback.
“Kids want to be engaging in fun activities with other kids,”
says Heather Henderson, PhD, a developmental psychologist at
the University of Waterloo. “Shyness is a [research] topic that is
not going to go away soon.”
The coy smile
When describing a child’s temperament, parents, teachers and
friends often toss around the “shy” label. But scientists have
their own way of defining the term. Shyness — also known as
behavioral inhibition — is not quite the same as introversion.
Introverted kids just like spending time alone, happier to
curl up with a book or build a Lego tower than to join the
neighborhood kids in a game of tag. Behaviorally inhibited
children, on the other hand, crave social interaction. The
problem is, those interactions are also a source of stress.
“The prototypical shy child is timid, with a coy smile,” says
Koraly Pérez-Edgar, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Penn
State University. “You can tell they want to interact, but it’s
overwhelming to them.”
Hints of shyness crop up surprisingly early. Longitudinal
studies initiated in the 1980s and 1990s by Pérez-Edgar’s former
advisor Jerome Kagan, PhD, at Harvard University, and Nathan
Fox, PhD, at the University of Maryland, have shown the first
signs of behavioral inhibition are evident well before a child’s
Psychologists have new insights into the causes and
effects of childhood shyness.
BY KIRSTEN WEIR