Children’s shyness can be rooted in temperament or experienced as an emotion, says Brock researcher

Having to recite a speech in front of a crowd may send some people into a sweaty, trembling tizzy — and children are no exception.

Curious about the cause, Kristie Poole has explored whether the butterflies experienced by children are due to a shy personality or just the reaction to a situation perceived to be stressful.

In a recently published study, the Brock University Banting Postdoctoral Fellow found that a small subset of children experiencing fear and nervousness while giving a presentation are shy by nature.

“This study provides support for the idea that shyness can be viewed as a temperamental trait or part of your disposition as well as an emotional state in certain social situations,” Poole says.

For the study, titled “Latent profiles of children’s shyness: Behavioral, affective, and physiological components,” Poole and her research team recruited 152 Canadian children ages seven to eight and their primary caregivers.

Kristie Poole, Brock University Banting Postdoctoral Fellow.

Kristie Poole, Brock University Banting Postdoctoral Fellow.

The children were asked to give a two-minute speech in front of a video camera and, in an attempt to induce the type of stress associated with shyness, were told other children would watch their video.

As the children delivered their speeches, an electrocardiogram measured their autonomic nervous system activity and the researchers coded shy-related behaviours such as gaze aversion. The children also self-reported their feelings of nervousness in response to the speech task.

Primary caregivers filled out questionnaires about their child’s temperament during the child’s visit to the laboratory and then repeated the questionnaire one year later and again two years later.

The research team found that about 25 per cent of the children in the study reported feeling nervous while delivering their speeches, yet they didn’t exhibit behaviours related to shyness or have physiological indications of anxiety or stress.

A further 10 per cent who reported feeling nervous also exhibited behaviours and physiological indicators related to shyness. These children were also rated by their caregivers as having shy personalities across time.

“For the smaller subset of about 10 per cent of the children, their shyness can be perceived as being part of their temperament or personality that is relatively consistent across development, whereas for the other subset of about 25 percent, shyness can be experienced as an emotion or as a state during certain social situations,” says Poole.

For children with a temperament characterized by shyness, it is likely they experienced shyness earlier in development beginning in toddlerhood, she says.

Previous research has found people who are temperamentally shy as children are at risk of experiencing heightened anxiety, “so it’s something to keep an eye on if shyness is interfering greatly with a child’s psychosocial functioning,” says Poole.

But she stresses that many children who act shy in social situations “do have a positive developmental trajectory and grow up to be adaptive adults without psychological problems,” she says.

The study recommends that future research focus on how ‘temperamental shyness,’ or shyness as a personality trait, and situational shyness, or ‘state shyness,’ impacts children’s social, psychological and academic adjustment.

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