New study: Childhood shyness linked to adult anxiety

Recent research suggests that shy toddlers grow up to be anxious adults, but Jennifer Pinarski thinks it's nothing to worry about.

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Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

I was a very shy kid. My childhood memories include hiding behind my mom at banks and grocery stores when people would talk to me and pretending to fall asleep at playdates my mom would schedule for me. My grade school report card comments included things like “Jennifer is a quiet girl and would benefit from participating in classroom activities” or “Jennifer works well on her own but doesn’t contribute to group work as often as she should.”

My four-year-old daughter is very much the same way. We’ve had to cancel gymnastics and swimming lessons because she refuses to participate in these sports on her own and she’s reluctant to talk to new people. For example, last weekend we attended a neighbourhood Easter egg hunt, but instead of joining her friends and brother in scooping up candy and toys, she stuck by my side, gripping my thumb as tight as she could (the irony is that she fearlessly attempted the monkey bars on her own at the same party). Gillian isn’t as shy as she used to be, but she’s still nowhere near as extroverted as her older brother.

Read more: Anxiety disorders in children > 

I never really gave much thought to my daughter’s shyness or how it might change as she grows up, but after stumbling across a recent study about adult anxiety and its link to childhood made me rethink my own mental health challenges as an adult.

Koraly Pérez-Edgar, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, runs the university’s Cognition, Affect, and Temperament Lab. Along with a team of 30 researchers, Pérez-Edgar starts with babies as young as four months old and works with them through their young adult years to better understand childhood anxiety. By following children into their teens and beyond, researchers have confirmed the link between behavioral inhibition in young children and anxiety later in life. Their study is now exploring whether extreme shyness is caused by differences in the brain, specifically the amygdala.

Using everything from neuroimaging to interviews to figure out what makes anxious kids tick, Pérez-Edgar still refers to research she helped conduct 15 years ago as to how behavioural inhibition (aka extreme shyness) plays out when young children are left to play on their own. That particular experiment involved leaving four four-year-old girls alone to play with each other and a few toys once their parents left the room. One poor little girl was so upset after her mom left that she started crying and tried to open the door on her own.

“Kids aren’t yet anxious, but can have the temperament that may predispose them to become anxious,” says Pérez-Edgar, noting there is a difference between normal separation anxiety, which is commonly experienced by two- and three-year-olds, and what might be considered anxiety.

Read more: Separation anxiety survival guide >

Thinking back to the days where I hid from family friends behind the safety of my mom—and later being treated for anxiety and depression as an adult—it’s easy for me to draw a line between those two periods of my life. Looking at my daughter, who is slowly but surely becoming more confident in new situations, I know that even if she does face anxiety problems down the road I’ll feel well-equipped to help her manage them because of my own experiences.

Do you have a shy child? What do you think about the recent study? Tweet me @JenPinarski.

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