When shyness becomes a problem - researchers share impacts of extreme shyness
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > When shyness becomes a problem – researchers share impacts of extreme shyness

When shyness becomes a problem – researchers share impacts of extreme shyness

by Freya Lucas

January 22, 2021

Being shy – the feeling of fear or discomfort caused by other people, especially in new situations or amongst strangers – can be categorised as “an unpleasant feeling of self consciousness.” 


This discomfort, in adults and children, can inhibit a person’s ability to do or say what they want, and, in some cases, limit the formation of healthy relationships. Shyness is often linked to low self esteem, and may be one of the causes of social anxiety. 


Extreme shyness, researchers from the University of Amsterdam have found, likely emerges in very early childhood. Developmental psychologist Milica Nikolić is conducting research to determine how parents and other caring adults can prevent children from becoming overly shy in later life. 


The motivation for the research is the impact that extreme shyness can have on both mental and physical health.


To delineate between “normal” and “extreme” shyness, Dr Nikolić gave the following examples: 


“You could also use the term dysfunctional or atypical shyness. For example, some people blush excessively, display extremely withdrawn behaviour or are afraid to speak at all,” she explained. Those individuals would be considered to be excessively shy.  


“People who tend to be a bit shy – blushing, shy smiles – at the “right” moments (when they’re holding a presentation, or receive a huge compliment) are considered “cute”. However, extremely shy people are perceived as being “weird”,” she continued.


“I should point out that people who aren’t shy at all tend to have the same reaction when the spotlight is on them. I’m assessing whether this also occurs in children as part of one of my partial studies. Are children who are atypically shy or children who aren’t shy at all less well-liked by their peers?”


The consequences of extreme shyness can be wide reaching, researchers said. Extremely shy people become socially excluded, run the risk of mental disorders, struggle to form friendships and relationships and have a higher risk of physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease. 


Existing treatments for extreme shyness tend to be only partially effective, Dr Nikolić said, in part because they begin when children have already reached puberty, or adulthood. By that time, the problem “will have become too serious.” 


“That’s why I believe we need to identify and address the issue much earlier, in early childhood. Studies have shown that even babies smile shyly and that extreme shyness issues start around the age of two. One of my sub-studies aims to determine whether atypical shyness leads to social exclusion in early childhood. According to my theory, atypical shyness can cause disorders because it inhibits children from interacting with others.”


To reach solid conclusions, Dr Nikolić and her team will be conducting experimental studies in which parent-child interactions are documented, with the aim of assessing whether certain responses to children’s behaviour trigger or reinforce displays of shyness. 


“We’ll then try to pinpoint exactly when atypical shyness first emerges. We will be monitoring parents and children over a longer period of time in order to determine exactly what happens and when. We’ll start monitoring the children at 6 months, and subsequently meet them and their parents on two further occasions: once the child has reached the age of one year and again at age two years.’


Dr Nikolić hopes that the study will add to a body of research which provides clarity on how and when atypical shyness arises and under what circumstances, and determine which children are at risk of developing the problem, allowing space to then tackle the underlying causes and prevent the child from developing symptoms.


To follow the research, please see here

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button