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Rob is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. He specializes in the study of shyness, social withdrawal, and social anxiety in childhood. He is also the director of the Pickering Centre for Research in Human Development. He has published hundreds of journal articles and book chapters, as well as several books, including his most recent ones Quiet at School and the Handbook of Solitude.
- The characteristics of shyness as a temperamental trait
- The extent to which shy children are vulnerable to mental health problems later in life and what interventions protect their development
- Recommendations to parents for best supporting shy children
- How parents should manage anxious adolescents’ academic performance anxiety and smartphone use
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Here are some highlights of the conversation with Rob:
JF: Tell us about your research on shyness
JF: What exactly is shyness?
RC: When I talk to parents about this, I try to present it as basically a temperamental trait that is part of our personality. A temperamental trait is something that we come into the world with, temperamental differences in how we react to the environment that are present right from birth. So it’s something that we’re kind of born with, something that is relatively stable across our childhood and into adolescence and adulthood. I guess the easiest way to think about it is that temperament is your building blocks for your later personality. So shyness is a temperamental trait.
It’s a way of responding to the environment and for shy kids it has to do with two main sorts of reactions. For young kids, the youngest kids, shyness is mostly about feeling nervous and anxious in new situations, encountering new people, meeting unfamiliar adults or other kids.
The way that I would talk to parents about it is that I would say that they have a nervous system that is wired a little bit too tight. So it’s almost as if their nervous system is telling them that something scary is about to jump out from about a corner all of the time. Because when they’re wired a little bit tight, when they encounter a new person, they encounter that as stressful. They feel a little bit wary in those kinds of situations and their nervous system is sort of set to go off. It’s as if it’s anticipating something bad or scary to happen. And it’s pretty easy to imagine how those kinds of physical responses, physiological responses where your heart rate is going a little bit faster and your breathing a little bit faster and those easily connect into thoughts about how this is scary and feelings of anxiousness and those things get kind of mashed together. So that when these shy kids are meeting a new person, they just automatically settle into this wary and nervous response.
JF: You mentioned that with shyness it tends to be specifically about other people, but then you said earlier that it can be about new situations. So there are other categories of threat.
RC: There are different ways of characterizing shy responses. Certainly when we are talking about the personality trait of shyness, it usually focuses on some social, social new things. But other people look at response to novelty a little bit more generally, so any kind of new situation, a new environment, a child playing with a new toy, going into a new classroom. Anything that has that novelty to it can also be threatening.
But I would say that those people who focus on shyness specifically definitely want to include the social part, the presence of other people. So that kind of early shyness is typical to young people’s social experiences. A lot of stuff is new for young kids.
It’s certainly not a surprise to think that there are a certain proportion of kids in our species who respond a little bit more reactively when they meet new situations. And evolutionary speaking, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is probably good for our species as a whole that not everybody is bouncing off the walls extroverted, that not everybody is jumping right in, is super outgoing, is super sociable. It’s nice to have those people around. It’s also nice, from a species perspective, to have another group of people who are little bit more cautious, who are a little bit more sensitive to threats in the environment. They look a little bit before they leap. There’s a reason why today after all of these years of evolution, we still have a wide range of shyness trait in our species because evolutionary speaking there are adaptive qualities all of the way along that range of personality.
JF: What are the adaptive qualities of being shy?
JF: The difference between shyness and anxiety?
JF: What is the approach/avoidance conflict?
JF: What about children who enjoy solitude? Do we need to worry about them? Is it an advantage?
RC: There are a lot great stuff that we get from hanging out with our friends. And so I guess the point has always been that if we get all of this great stuff from hanging out with kids, if we’re not hanging out with them as much as we should be, then there might some cumulative cost. So even if we are a well adjusted, socially competent, happy kid, happy to spend time by ourselves, if we are not spending enough time with others and we’re not getting whatever that minimum level of social interaction is, even if we’re not having any issues now, over the years we might come to lag behind the acquisition and implementation of these great, amazing things and skills that we get from hanging out with our friends. And then we might end up running into trouble later on because we haven’t kept up with our peers in terms of the expectations for what the quality and quantity of social interaction is going to be.
I guess it’s always important from a parent perspective to understand the reasons why kids might be spending time alone. So we’ve talked about two different kinds of pathways that might lead kids to spend time alone. The shy child who might want to play, but is scared. And so they might be off by themselves because they’re too nervous to interact with others. So that’s something that parents can certainly help with. We can talk about that later. Then there are these kids who are just quite happy to spend time by themselves. What we would probably suggest in that case is that you want to monitor and make sure that they’re still getting at least some social interaction and that they’re keeping up in terms of their ability to do that.
There’s a third group that we can think about who are spending time by themselves because they’re being pushed out. So this is sort of a separate group of kids that are spending time alone for more external factors. These are kids who are excluded, rejected, victimized. A short form of saying that is that they’re playing alone because no one wants to play with them.
Unfortunately, the long term consequences of that can be quite devastating because you have the combination of missing out on these opportunities for social interaction combined with the incredible pain that can be caused with being ostracized. And so in those kinds of circumstances we’re talking about more of a need to help both with the child’s ability to interact and trying to change the context, so that they can engage in more positive social interactions.
When kids get older, especially for teenagers, if they are spending a lot of time alone, it might be because they are feeling depressed. That’s another kind of warning sign is that if you are removing yourself and avoiding social situations, it might be because, especially for adolescents, there not might be as many positive reasons, therefore withdrawing. So again it’s on us as parents and teachers and friends to keep an eye up on our friends to make sure that that time spent alone is under the most positive circumstances.
JF: Kids may play alone for different reasons: because they are anxious, because they enjoy solitude, or because other children won’t play with them. What do we know about the development of these different types of children?
JF: To what extent are shy children at risk for mental health problems later in life and what can parents do about it”
JF: What are the success rates of interventions with shy children in preventing long-term mental health problems?
RC: The good news is that anxiety in general, and social anxiety as well, is one of the most treatable mental health difficulties that we have, which is wonderful. There are very effective techniques for children of all ages, and adolescents, and adults that have been proven extraordinarily successful overall in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
One of the larger issues, of course, is that for whatever reason, whether it’s stigma or it’s lack of motivation to change, the vast of majority of kids, adolescents, and adults who are suffering from subclinical or clinical levels of anxiety never seek any form of treatment. Which to me is a crisis of epic proportion. It’s so sad to me that people are living with these sometimes crippling anxieties that could be helped, but for a whole bunch of reasons some of them internal, some of them external, lack of access to treatment, costs, some of them just internal refusing to go or not wanting to go, too scared to go, worried about stigma. They are not seeking treatment.
So the take home message for people listening in terms of raising awareness and trying to encourage people to seek help and support is that there is wonderful help and support out there to assist with these sorts of issues if people would only sort of pick them up. I’ll get off my soapbox after that.
JF: What’s your perspective on the seeming rise in anxiety that children feel around academic performance?
JF: What is the impact of smartphones on shy kids?
JF: What’s your take on research by professor Jean Twenge that shows that the proliferation of the smartphones among adolescence is associated with increases in depression and anxiety?
JF: How has your understanding of the science of child development affected how you parent your own kids?”
JF: What are your recommendations for supporting children who are playing alone 1) because they enjoy it and 2) because they are ostracized?
RC: It’s important to recognize the positive sides or strengths of every different kind of child and every different kind of personality trait. And the good aspects is that sometimes it’s really nice to have someone who is a little bit quieter. It’s nice to have someone who is a little bit tuned into everyone else’s feelings, who is more tuned into their environment, who can assess things and evaluate things and be pensive and thoughtful and sensitive to what’s going on. There are a lot of very positive aspects to this kind of behaviour. There can be a sweetness to these kinds of behaviours and a real good heartedness I think.
We don’t want to lose sight of that and lose track of that amiss the worry about what it’s going to mean for my child when they have to get up and talk in front of their class or when they have to go to the trial for their sports team or go to their piano lesson. It’s really important to treasure your child for who they are and what their personality traits bring out and of course help them and support them to be the best version of themselves.
Maybe that’s a good way of finishing off. We’re not trying to tell you to change your child’s core personality trait. We’re not trying to tell you to try to change who they are. We’re just trying to provide you with a toolbox, a set of coping strategies that’s going to help your child to be the best versions of who they can be.