Is shyness something kids feel, or something kids are?

Even some outgoing children can get stressed in high-pressure social situations.
A group of eight children running in an open field.

Fear and nervousness in social situations or being at the center of attention, is a fairly typical childhood experience. Deposit Photos

Is shyness something you feel, or is it something that defines you? Child psychologists are still not fully convinced one way or the other. A small study published April 25 in the journal Society for Research in Child Development found that timidness, fear and nervousness in social situations or being at the center of attention, is a fairly typical childhood experience, whether it is an emotion or personality. 

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Some long standing theories about shyness believe that there are two types of coy behavior. “Temperamental” shyness remains roughly the same throughout development, whereas “state” shyness is felt during a social situation and manifests more like an emotion. 

In this new study, researchers examined the behavioral, affective, and physiological responses to a speech task in 152 Canadian children (73 girls and 79 boys) ages seven and eight. The children were told that they would be giving a speech that would be filmed and shown to other children. Their parents completed online questionnaires about their child’s temperament, while the children were given an echocardiogram to check for physiological indications of nervous behavior.

The children prepared a two-minute speech about their last birthday and recited the speech in front of a video camera and a mirror. The researchers monitored the children for behaviors coded as avoidance or inhibition, self-reported nervousness, and respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

The team found that temperamental shyness may exist in a distinct group of children over time, and a larger group of children may experience shyness as an emotion during certain situations. 

About 10 percent of the children had a high level of stress giving the speech in addition to relatively high levels of shyness over time, according to the questionnaires filled out by their parents. According to the team, this provides evidence that shyness may be part of these children’s temperament. Being the center of attention may be stressful across time and in various contexts in this group. Future research could examine the consequences on how this shyness affects academic, social, and psychological well-being since shyness could be measured across time. 

Roughly 25 percent of study participants were not reported to be shy, but demonstrated a higher level of stress from giving the speech. The authors believe that it is likely that state shyness in response to a speech task is a relatively common, normative experience for children at this age.

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“Our findings provide empirical support for the long-theorized idea that there may be a subset of temperamentally shy children who manifest heightened behavioral, affective, and physiological reactivity in response to a social stressor, as well as a subset of children who may experience only the affective component which may reflect state shyness,” co-author and Brock University post-doctoral fellow and psychologist Kristie Poole said in a statement. “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.”

This study provides some empirical evidence for long-standing ideas about shyness that were first made by the late psychologist Jerome Kagan. In the 1990s, Kagan argued that temperamental shyness may exist as a distinct category for some children and the features that define this category are relatively stable across time and context.

The authors also noted some limitations to the research, namely that the study only measured these behavioral, affective, and physiological components at one point in time and the sample size was relatively small. Future research should also include a more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse pool and focus.