Childhood Shyness Predicts Adult Anxiety

Young shy boy clinging to his motherIt’s fairly common to see a child sheepishly hide behind a parent when greeting a new person, and some adults vividly remember the anxiety they experienced in childhood upon entering new environments. Recently published research, which tracked children over 15 years, argues that shyness isn’t just a personality quirk. It frequently indicates anxiety, and is often a precursor to high fearfulness in adulthood.

Childhood Shyness: The Study

Koraly Pérez-Edgar is a developmental psychologist who began studying children’s social interactions when she was a postdoctoral fellow. She found that children who displayed extreme shyness were more likely than other children to face anxiety as adults. A brief moment of trepidation meeting a new person wouldn’t rise to the level of such shyness, but a child who lurks anxiously in the background in an attempt to avoid other children is displaying severe inhibition.

Why Childhood Shyness Matters

Drawing upon previous research,Pérez-Edgar calls extreme shyness a form of behavioral inhibition. This inhibition involves more than just a case of nerves about trying something new. The personality trait appears as early as infancy, and involves an ongoing fear of new stimuli. Most babies might startle in response to a jack-in-the-box, then laugh as they realize the toy isn’t dangerous. Behaviorally inhibited babies are more likely to panic and cry.

For children with behavioral inhibitions, meeting a new person is just one more frightening stimulus. These children aren’t just shy. They’re displaying a temperamental quality that is stable across the lifespan and a relatively accurate predictor of adult fearfulness.

Drawing Children Out of Their Shells

Behaviorally inhibited children tend to limit their own environments, giving them few opportunities to practice social interaction—a behavior that can make anxiety even worse. Consequently, Pérez-Edgar isn’t sure whether behavioral inhibition is an innate trait that appears early in childhood, or a learned disposition that shy children practice daily.

She wants to help shy children overcome their inhibitions, in the hope that doing so might reduce adult anxiety. In a new study, she and her colleagues are using behavioral therapy to help ease children’s anxieties. By drawing children’s attention to something other than the source of fear, researchers hope that they might train the brain not to fixate on sources of anxiety. If the approach works, it could work to undermine the connection between early shyness and adult anxiety.


Inhibited children become anxious adults: Examining the causes and effects of early shyness. (2014, April 17). Retrieved from

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  • AnneKramer

    May 8th, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Shyness should not always be looked aat as a hindrance or a trait that will hold you back. There are plenty of great people in the world who are naturally shy and many of them have become great successes despite, or maybe eve because of those shy tendencies that they have. I know that this is not something that maybe many will aspire to but I think that there is something a little charming about those who blush a little easily and who don’t necessarily think that they are the reason that others want to be around. In this day and age of self congratulations and indulgence, to me this kind of attitude is pretty refreshing.

  • Bonnie

    May 9th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    And some of us grow out of our shyness; I was so shy when I was a kid but now you can’t introduce me to a stranger, I can talk to anyone!

  • kennedy t

    May 10th, 2014 at 7:49 AM

    There are some children who are so shy that it makes me hurt for them. It has to be so painful to meet new people and make any new friends when it is that hard to even look someone in the eye.

    I really hope that many of them find a way to conquer and oversome some of that because I have a theory that it is harder to succeed in life for those who are shy versus those who are a little more naturally gregarious and outgoing.

  • Deanna

    August 28th, 2014 at 10:53 PM

    I was a really shy child growing up. It definitely got in the way of making friends and was just really awkward at times. Sadly I never out grew it. I actually hate this part of my personality. But have learned to accept that it is who I am. Like me or don’t. But I hate it when my kids are cowering behind me in social situations. I feel that I was cheated on growing up because of my silence. I am not sure that I can ever change this part of my life.

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