ERIC Identifier: ED295741
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Hyson, Marion C. - Van Trieste, Karen
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
The Shy Child. ERIC Digest.
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.
WHY ARE SOME CHILDREN MORE SHY THAN OTHERS?
Some children are dispositionally 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 Caucasian, 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 plays 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
Despite 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
their 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).
WHEN IS SHYNESS A PROBLEM?
Shyness 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 (Sarafino, 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 to 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.
STRATEGIES FOR HELPING A SHY CHILD
--Know and accept the whole child. Shyness is only one aspect of the child's
personality. Being sensitive to the child's interests and feelings will allow
you to build a relationship with the child and show that you respect the child.
This can make the child more confident and less inhibited.
--Build self-esteem. Shy children may have negative self-images and may feel
that they will not be accepted. Reinforce shy children for demonstrating skills
and encourage their autonomy. Praise them often. "Children who feel good about
themselves are not likely to be shy" (Sarafino, 1986, p. 191).
--Develop social skills. Reinforce shy children for social behavior, even if
it is only parallel play. Honig (1987) recommends teaching children "social
skill words" ("Can I play, too?") and role playing social entry techniques.
Also, opportunities for play with young children in one-on-one situations may
allow shy children to become more assertive (Furman, Rahe, and Hartup, 1979).
Play with new groups of peers permits shy children to make a fresh start and
achieve a higher peer status.
--Allow the shy child to warm up to new situations. Pushing a child into a
situation which he or she sees as threatening is not likely to help the child
build social skills. Help the child feel secure and provide interesting
materials to lure him or her into social interactions (Honig, 1987).
--Remember that shyness is not all bad. Not every child needs or wants to be
the focus of attention. Some qualities of shyness, such as modesty and reserve,
are viewed as positive (Jones, Cheek, and Briggs, 1986). As long as a child does
not seem excessively uncomfortable or neglected around others, drastic
interventions are not necessary.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Buss, Arnold. "A Theory of Shyness." In SHYNESS: PERSPECTIVES ON RESEARCH AND
TREATMENT, edited by Warren Jones, Jonathan Cheek, and Stephen Briggs. New York:
Plenum Press, 1986.
Daniels, Denise and Robert Plomin. "Origins of Individual Differences in
Infant Shyness." DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 21 (1985): 118-121.
Furman, Wyndol, Donald F. Rahe, and Willard W. Hartup. "Rehabilitation of
Socially Withdrawn Preschool Children Through Mixed-Age and Same-Age
Socialization." CHILD DEVELOPMENT 50 (1979): 915-922.
Honig, Alice S. "The Shy Child." YOUNG CHILDREN 42 (1987): 54-64.
Izard, Carroll E. and Marion C. Hyson. "Shyness As a Discrete Emotion." In
SHYNESS: PERSPECTIVES ON RESEARCH AND TREATMENT, edited by Warren Jones,
Jonathan Cheek, and Stephen Briggs. New York: Plenum Press, 1986.
Jones, Warren H., Jonathan M. Cheek, and Stephen R. Briggs, eds. SHYNESS:
PERSPECTIVES ON RESEARCH AND TREATMENT. New York: Plenum Press, 1986.
Reznick, J.S., J. Kagan, N. Snidman, M. Gersten, K. Baak, and A. Rosenberg.
"Inhibited and Uninhibited Children: A Follow-Up Study." CHILD DEVELOPMENT 57
Sarafino, Edward P. THE FEARS OF CHILDHOOD. New York: Human Science Press,
Zimbardo, Philip G. and S.L. Radl. THE SHY CHILD: A PARENT'S GUIDE TO
PREVENTING AND OVERCOMING SHYNESS FROM INFANCY TO ADULTHOOD. New York: