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We used to think that shyness was a learned trait. We now know that extreme shyness has a genetic component.
About 15% of children are born with a tendency to be shy when confronted with new people and cautious when put in new situations.
The inhibited, or shy, child will exhibit actual, measurable physiological changes like an increase in heart rate and muscle tension when confronted with a new situation. These are the same changes found when adults are subjected to stress.
About 20% of children are the opposite of shy. These babies infants smile when they are confronted with something new and do not demonstrate the above physiological changes. They go to a stranger happily and do not seek refuge behind the mother’s skirts.
The majority of children are neither shy nor gregarious by nature but, like most of us, are sometimes shy and sometimes outgoing. The shy and gregarious infants and children, on the other hand, almost always demonstrated either the shy or gregarious behavior.
And these traits persist. The inhibited infant remains shy. Such children avoid the unfamiliar. They are quieter in play and talk less. They usually do well at school and are unlikely to have behavior problems or become delinquent, but are at a somewhat higher risk for anxiety disorders in adulthood.
Whether a child is temperamentally shy or gregarious seems to be inborn and not related to how the child is treated by the parents. Thus genes, rather than environment–nature, rather than nurture–seem to be the most important determinants.
Shyness can be disturbing to parents. The shy child seems uncomfortable and no parent wants to see their child suffer.
Fathers are often upset because they equate a shy child, especially a boy, with being a “baby” or a “sissy” neither of which is acceptable. And parents of either gender who remember their own shy childhood want desperately to prevent their child from experiencing the same distress.
Parents are unable to change those basic personality traits with which a child comes into the world. But parents can help a child deal with the hand already dealt. How?
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