McMaster University study reveals insights into children’s shyness
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McMaster University study reveals insights into children’s shyness

by Freya Lucas

May 01, 2023

Academics from McMaster University in Canada have conducted research into the components of shyness in children, finding that temperamental shyness may exist in a distinct group of children over time, while a larger subset of children may experience shyness as an emotional state in some situations.


“Our findings provide empirical support for the long-theorised 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,” lead researcher Kristie Poole explained. 


“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 study included 152 Canadian children (73 girls) aged between seven and eight years of age and their primary caregivers. The children were born in a local hospital and were recruited from a child database at McMaster University containing birth records of infants whose parents consented to their infant’s inclusion. 


Ninety percent of participating caregivers were mothers and 10 per cent were fathers. Children were primarily White (81.6 per cent), followed by mixed race (9.9 per cent), Asian (3.9 per cent), Black (2.6 per cent), and Latin American (2 per cent). Children were primarily from middle to upper socioeconomic class families.


Children were fitted with an ambulatory electrocardiogram and completed activities with an experimenter in a room next to their parent. During this time, parents completed online questionnaires related to the child’s temperament while monitoring their child on a muted closed-circuit 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 the speech would be videotaped for other children to watch later. This was designed to induce stress. The study team coded children’s avoidance/inhibition (i.e., behaviour), children self-reported their nervousness (i.e., affect), and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (i.e. physiology) was measured.


For their time, families were given $20 gift cards and children received a Junior Scientist Certificate. At one- and two-years post evaluations, parents completed an online follow-up survey on their child’s temperament. They responded to statements such as “child acts shy around new people.” This examined how a children’s responses to the speech were related to their temperament across time. Parents were given a $10 gift card at each follow-up.


“The findings showed that approximately 10 percent of children in our study showed social stress reactivity to the speech on behavioural, affective, and physiological levels, and also had a pattern of relatively higher, stable parent-reported temperamental shyness across time, providing evidence that they may be characterized as temperamentally shy,” Ms Poole continued. 


“A second subset of approximately 25 percent of children showed a pattern of social stress reactivity only on an affective level (i.e., self-reported feeling nervous), 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 conceptualisation of shyness in that different types of shyness may differ in kind rather than degree.”


The authors acknowledge several limitations in their research. The study only measured behavioural, affective, and physiological components at one point in time, so they do not have the means to measure whether these components remain stable across development. 


The authors recommend that future research include more diverse samples of children as this study was primarily of white children from middle to upper socioeconomic status families making it difficult to generalise the findings.


To access the research in full please see here

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