in their environment (Emotion, 2010; Journal of Abnormal Child
“If we have a bias to things that we perceive as threatening,
we start to see the environment as threatening,” she says.
Helping such kids learn to focus their attention away from
threats might help them change their behaviors — and perhaps
even change the underlying biological mechanisms that put
them at risk for anxiety.
Attention is just one of the influences that helps chart a timid
child’s future course. While the seeds of shyness may be
biological, environmental factors also affect where a child lands
on the exuberance spectrum.
Parenting is a significant contributor. Concerned parents
may avoid putting their shy children in situations that make
them uncomfortable. But singing along in music class and
playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a classmate’s birthday
party help children learn how to cope with those uncomfortable
situations. When parents are overprotective, children miss out
on opportunities to practice regulating feelings of shyness,
increasing the risk for anxiety, Coplan says.
That can be a hard message for parents to hear. “When
you’re looking at a child feeling shy, the first thing you want to
do is swoop down and protect them,” Henderson says. “The
trick for parents is to back off a little, to be supportive but let
the child take little steps to doing things on her own.”
Early social encounters are important, too. Studies have
shown that shy kids who go to daycare early on tend to be less
anxious than those who stay home with a parent or nanny,
Henderson says. Other evidence suggests that having just
one good friend can make a huge difference for a timid child.
“Experience really matters,” she says.
Researchers are still working out which experiences are most
important for helping shy kids thrive. But in the meantime, they
stress that being shy doesn’t have to be a problem. “Being shy
is not a disorder. It’s okay to be slow to warm up,” says Pérez-Edgar.
“My hallway is littered with formerly inhibited people,
because [a research career] suits our temperamental traits,”
she adds. “In the right environment, all of these children can
Kirsten Weir is a journalist in Minneapolis.
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