A new study analyzes shyness in children

Researchers conducted a study to better understand childhood shyness, focusing on the behavioral, affective, and physiological components. The results indicated that temperamental shyness, a stable trait throughout development, may occur in a distinct group of children over time, while a larger subgroup may experience shyness as an emotional state in certain situations. The findings provide empirical support for longstanding theories about the differences between temperamental and state shyness, and have implications for understanding children’s social, psychological and academic adjustment.

A new study examines shyness in children and finds that temperamental shyness may be a distinct trait in some, while others experience shyness as an emotional state in specific situations. The research provides insight into the social, psychological and academic adjustment of children.

What is Shyness? Research has shown that shyness is characterized by fear and nervousness in response to social novelty and/or social evaluation. Shyness can manifest on a behavioral, affective, and physiological level, but little is known about how these components cluster. Long-standing theories indicate that shyness can be conceptualized as a trait that is relatively stable throughout development, which is described as temperamental shyness. Shyness can also be understood as an emotion felt in a particular social situation, which is described as state shyness.

To better understand shyness in children, a new study appeared in Child development by researchers at McMaster University in Canada examined a child’s behavioral, affective and physiological responses to a speech task. The findings showed that temperamental shyness can occur in a distinct group of children over time, while a larger group of children may experience shyness as an emotional state in some situations.

“Our findings provide empirical support for the long-theorized idea that there may be a subgroup of temperamentally shy children who show heightened behavioral, affective, and physiological reactivity in response to a social stressor, as well as a subgroup of children who may only have the affective component that may reflect the embarrassment of the state,” as explained by Kristie Poole who led the study at McMaster University and is now a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Brock University. “This highlights the multiple components and developmental course of temperamental shyness and the features that distinguish temperamental and state shyness in middle to late childhood.”

The current study included 152 Canadian children (73 girls) aged 7-8 years and their primary caregivers. The children were born at a local hospital and were recruited from a children’s database at McMaster University containing birth certificates of babies whose parents consented to their baby’s admission. Ninety percent of the participating caregivers were mothers and 10% were fathers. Children were primarily white (81.6%), followed by mixed race (9.9%), Asian (3.9%), black (2.6%), and Hispanic (2%). Children mainly came from middle to upper socioeconomic class families.

Children received an ambulatory electrocardiogram and completed activities with an experimenter in a room next to their parent. During this time, parents completed online questionnaires about the child’s temperament while monitoring their child on a closed-circuit, muted monitor. Children prepared a two-minute speech about their last birthday and recited their speech in front of a video camera and mirror. They were told that the speech would be videotaped for other children to watch later. This was meant to induce stress. The research team coded children’s avoidance/inhibition (ie behaviour), children self-reported their nervousness (ie affection) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (ie physiology) was measured.

For their time, families received $20 gift certificates and children received a Junior Scientist Certificate. One and two years after the evaluations, parents completed an online follow-up survey about their child’s temperament. They responded to statements such as “child acts shy around new people.” This examined how a child’s responses to speech related to their temperament over time. Parents received a $10 gift certificate with each follow-up.

“The findings showed that approximately 10 percent of the children in our study showed social stress reactivity to speech at the behavioral, affective, and physiological levels, and also had a pattern of relatively higher, stable parent-reported temperamental shyness over the course of the time, providing evidence that they could be characterized as temperamentally shy,” Poole continued. “A second subgroup of approximately 25 percent of children showed a pattern of social stress reactivity at the affective level only (i.e., self-reported nervousness), and did not show relatively high levels of parent-reported temperamental shyness, providing evidence that they may be characterized by state shyness . The findings have implications for the conceptualization of shyness in that different types of shyness may differ in type rather than degree.

The findings provide empirical evidence for longstanding ideas first articulated several decades ago by the late Jerome Kagan. He argued that temperamental shyness may be a separate category for some children and that the characteristics defining this category are relatively stable over time and context. In addition to this subgroup of temperamentally shy children, researchers found that a larger subgroup of children may experience shyness as an emotional state in some situations. It is likely that the experience of state shyness in response to a speech task is a relatively common, normative experience for children of this age. However, for a smaller group of temperamentally shy children, being the center of attention can be stressful over time and in different contexts. Since we know that not all children are the same and early temperamental shyness is a risk factor for internalizing problems, future work should examine the implications of these findings for children’s social, psychological and academic adjustment.

The authors acknowledge several limitations in their study. The study only measured behavioral, affective, and physiological components at one point in time, so they don’t have the means to measure whether these components remain stable throughout development. The authors recommend that future research include more diverse samples of children, as this study focused primarily on white children from families of middle to upper socioeconomic status, making it difficult to generalize the findings.

Reference: “Latent Profiles of Childhood Shyness: Behavioral, Affective, and Physiological Components” By Kristie L. Poole and Louis A. Schmidt, April 25, 2023, Child development.
DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13920

This work was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Doctoral Award, an Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Fellowship from the American Psychological Foundation, and funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) ).

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