There are very sociable children who make friends easily while others are very shy. Shyness implies a certain degree of introversion in social contexts, which manifests itself through withdrawn and cautious behavior.
Shy children have a tendency to escape or avoid social contact when faced with strangers or in new situations. In fact, inhibition in social contexts is one of the most obvious characteristics of childhood shyness. A shy child will try to keep a distance and will not speak in front of strangers, usually due to fear, anxiety, or embarrassment.
Childhood shyness is not a pathology, but parents and educators often react to it as if it were. This reaction is rooted in Western culture, in which sociability and extraversion are valued positively, so that children are encouraged to communicate and connect with others. As a result, childhood shyness is often identified as a negative trait that must be overcome as soon as possible.
However, the truth is that all species, cultures and generations show a certain degree of inhibition or even avoidance in the face of strangers or in novel situations. As a general rule, we all measure ourselves more when we are in front of strangers and we feel more comfortable with known people. It’s completely understandable as we don’t know what to expect and are concerned about making a good first impression.
The ubiquity of shyness has prompted new theories that propose that it may have adaptive functions. In fact, in many cases shyness is not a disadvantage or a problem, but a natural, understandable and normal response in people who are more cautious, introverted and/or apprehensive.
Greater ability to detect threats
Psychologists at Pennsylvania State University found that shy children may be better prepared to perceive and detect social threats in their environment, compared to children who are not shy.
When shy children are faced with a new situation, they are likely to perceive it as scary, so they can activate strategies such as remote surveillance that allow them to learn more about the situation while staying safe. In fact, shy children’s brains have been shown to react differently to social situations.
Because shy children tend to “calculate before jumping,” they are more likely to detect potential threats, which could lead them to be more careful in social situations. For example, a shy child might more easily notice the profile of a bullying classmate or an adult who wants to hurt him because he has a lower threshold for detecting threats. Therefore, childhood shyness could protect him from physical and psychological dangers, in addition to avoiding interpersonal conflicts.
Childhood shyness enhances empathy
Psychologists at Lewis and Clark College revealed another benefit of childhood shyness. They appreciated that staying at a distance in new social situations could enhance children’s socio-cognitive development.
These researchers read children’s stories to the children and asked them to explain why the characters acted in certain ways or made certain decisions. Thus they evaluated the theory of mind, an aspect of social cognition that involves taking into account another person’s point of view.
They found that shy children gave more complex explanations about the stories, being able to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. Keeping a distance by observing and listening carefully to what is happening is likely to allow shy children to learn and better understand how social situations develop, which would enhance the development of empathy.
What should parents and teachers know about childhood shyness?
Childhood shyness does not imply a condemnation to lead a lonely life. Not all shy people are the same, and not all are at risk for social disorders.
In a general sense, childhood shyness is only pathological when it affects the child’s life, preventing him from carrying out the activities of his age, affecting his relationships with his peers and/or damaging his school performance. In those cases, it is necessary to ask for specialized help.
However, it is likely that as children better understand the dynamics of interpersonal interactions, they will develop social skills that allow them to make and maintain friendships, as well as successfully insert themselves into different social contexts. In most cases it is better to view childhood shyness as a personality trait rather than as a potential condition.
In fact, in group-oriented societies in which the maintenance of harmony and interpersonal relationship is positively valued, moderation and caution intrinsic to shy children are seen as indicators of social maturity. In traditional Chinese society, for example, parents tend to interpret shy behavior as a sign of obedience and respect.
If parents and educators want to do something to make life easier for shy children, rather than pressure them to get rid of shyness, they should simply develop conflict resolution skills. A study carried out at the Shanghai Normal University found that these skills mitigate the social, psychological and school problems that shy children can have.
Although shy children tend to be anxious and cautious in social situations, applying constructive and conflict-oriented strategies improves their image with their peers and teachers, making them perceive them as more prosocial and well-behaved.
Zhu, J. et. Al. (2021) Shyness and Adjustment in Early Childhood in Southeast China: The Moderating Role of Conflict Resolution Skills. Front. Psychol; 10.3389.
Hassan, R. & Pole, K. (2020) Childhood shyness can be advantageous – don’t pathologise it. En: Psyche.
Poole, K. L. et. Al. (2019) Frontal brain asymmetry and the trajectory of shyness across the early school years. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology; 47(7): 1253–1263.
LaBounty, J. et. Al. (2016) Relationship between Social Cognition and Temperament in Preschool-aged Children. Infant and Child Development; 26(2): e1981.
LoBue, V. & Pérez, K. (2014) Sensitivity to Social and Non-Social Threats in Temperamentally Shy Children At-Risk for Anxiety. Dev Sci; 17(2): 239–247.
Chen, X. & French, D. C. (2008) Children’s social competence in cultural context. Annu. Rev. Psychol; 59; 591–616.