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Study Shows Shy Children Become Anxious Adults

October 13, 2015

15 years ago, Developmental Psychologist Koraly Perez-Edgar sat in a lab and watched a group of 4 year old girls play together. A typical scene in any household with kids, but Perez-Edgar was observing this for very specific reasons. As children, temperaments can be very obvious, and just as easily as an uninhibited child can be noticed, an inhibited child can also be observed. Perez-Edgar noticed that there was a sort of “alpha” of the group, who would tell the other girls what to do, and there was one who was very shy. In her own words, Perez-Edgar described that “The inhibited child will sit and watch, but she doesn’t play alone or with others. The idea of being included seems to terrify her.”

Extreme shyness in children is more common than one may think, and Perez-Edgar’s research over the years shows a clear link between early childhood shyness, and adult anxiety. She acknowledges that the behavior of shy children may evolve as they get older, but they will likely still feel uncomfortable in social situations.

Perez-Edgar mentions signs of this anxiety and shyness that are shown even in babies. For example, some babies will cry when they are given a sensory overload, like a jack-in-the-box. Some may laugh. The interaction with the jack-in-the-box can either impose danger, or humor to a child, and this is relevant to how behaviorally inhibited the child may be, on a intrinsic level.

Studies show that the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, is overactive in people who show these behavioral cues. However, the question that Perez-Edgar is looking to answer now is, “is it because you’re temperamentally reactive, that your amygdala is overactive, or vice versa?” She has not answered this question yet, but is hoping that her current and future research will provide cues into what the answer may be.

One way that Perez-Edgar proposes that adult anxiety can be prevented in shy children, is through behavioral therapy, focusing the child’s attention elsewhere and making positive associations with the things that give them anxiety. Overall, we are excited to see where this research will take the topic of anxiety and mental illness in the field of neurobiology.

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