The science of shyness

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When Marla Genova's preschool peer accidentally stepped on her hand, Genova couldn't stand the attention and "quit." "My mom couldn't get me to come back," remembers the now-37-year-old researcher at Yale University School of Medicine.

That's Genova's earliest memory of being shy, but far from the only memory. In kindergarten, she wouldn't talk to anybody. In middle school, she had her first panic attack. In high school, she asked teachers to move her to lower-level classes, where she was less likely to have to give presentations. Through the years, she'd intentionally "forget" her gym clothes so she could sit on the sidelines instead of participating. She dropped college classes that wouldn't exempt her from public speaking and told prospective employers she wouldn't take the job if it meant talking in front of others. "This idea of people watching me made me very anxious," she says.

It wasn't until Genova got screened for anxiety in college that she learned she wasn't just timid – she had social anxiety. "I went in and nailed that test," she says.

Social anxiety disorder, which affects about 15 million Americans, is a psychiatric diagnosis characterized by the "extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Shyness, on the other hand, is a more subjective label describing people who want to interact with others, but can't do so comfortably, says Koraly Perez-Edgar, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, where she studies shyness and social anxiety. More than 60 percent of parents think their teens are shy, and about half of teens call themselves shy, according to a 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics.

"If you're shy, you might be like, 'I wish I could participate more, or I feel held back and this is uncomfortable,'" Genova says. "Where social anxiety is rampant in your head: 'What's wrong with me? Why can't I talk? Will this go away? People are going to think I'm strange. I'm going to walk away and worry about this for days.'"

Why So Shy?

As many parents know, two kids from the same gene pool can have very different personalities. Shyness, which can surface in children as young as 1 year old, is no exception, says John Walker, a professor in the Department of Clinical Health Psychology at the University of Manitoba and director of St. Boniface General Hospital's Anxiety Disorders Program​.

"Some children and young people are quite shy and uninhibited, and others are very bold and outgoing," he says. "There's good evidence there's a strong genetic component."

In Perez-Edgar's work, for example, she's found some kids seem to be biologically predisposed to backing away when they don't understand or can't control the world – especially the social world – around them. Toddlers who pay particular attention to things they consider threatening​ – say, interpreting someone's diverted glance as disapproval or even being especially wary of a jack-in-the-box​ – are less likely to grow out of their shyness and develop anxiety, her ​2011 study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found.

"It's adaptive and normal for people to be on the lookout for threats in their environment, whether they be physical or social, because you want to protect yourself," she says. "But if you have an individual who seeks out threats too much or has a low threshold for what they consider threatening ... they're more likely to withdraw and look shy."

Environment matters, too. Parents who are too harsh or overprotective, for example, can boost their children's odds of going from shy to socially anxious. Kids who have just one or two good friends​, on the other hand, are likely to grow up into well-adjusted adults, Perez-Edgar says.

"There's a huge component from the environment and what actually happens to the child over the course of development," she says.

Say Goodbye to Shy

Being shy isn't a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be an asset. For example, shy people can become great listeners or good at reading others, Walker says. ​

Still, it's important for kids to learn how to be comfortable interacting with others in order to do well in school, succeed in the workforce and even maintain physical and mental health by having a network of people to call on for support​, Walker says. "If you see your child is very shy, it really is worth working on helping them to build up their confidence because your ability to relate to people really ties into success in so many areas of life," he says.

Here are five ways to help a shy child become a successful adult:

1. Check​ your expectations.

Your child doesn't have to be the life of the party, captain of the football team or the most popular kid in school, Perez-Edgar says. Instead, parents should aim for "​children to be happy and to be able to interact with others when they want to."

So if your kid prefers to play quietly alone or with one or two others, or avoids large social gatherings, "that's perfectly fine if they're happy and they're functioning​ and they feel good about themselves," Perez-Edgar says. "It only becomes a problem if you see that it limits them or they're sad about or if they're somehow feeling bad about themselves."

2. Intervene early.

Shyness rarely develops in adulthood, although life experiences can make someone more reserved or isolated, Perez-Edgar says. "If you see an adult who's socially anxious, they most likely were a socially anxious child," she says.

That's one of the reasons it's a good idea to keep a close eye on shy children, gently pushing them to accept a play date, join a sports team or call a friend. Walker, who co-authored the book "Triumph Over Shyness," urges parents to limit screen time so that kids learn to interact with people face to face. Even simply sending little ones to day care can help ward off future social anxiety, Perez-Edgar says. That helps them realize "that they can interact with people and that even if one day something bad happens, the next day it's going to be OK," she says.

Better they realize that as toddlers than as teens, when interventions become more complicated, she adds. "Dealing with a 5-year-old in day care is so much easier than the 15-year-old in the therapist's office," she says.

3. Take baby steps.

If step one is organizing a play date for your child, step two isn't inviting the entire class over for a surprise party. "You don't throw them in the deep end of the pool, but you do help them get in the water," Perez-Edgar says. "They have to get wet. And the easier and the more often they get wet, in the sense of experiencing the social environment and realizing that it's not necessarily threatening, the better."

Walker suggests linking the social activity to a reward by offering, for instance, to help your child make a pizza if he or she invites a friend or letting your child choose a treat from the bakery if he or she orders it without your help. Genova says telling kids they only have to go to the birthday party for a half-hour can make the adventure feel safer. Anything is better than nothing, she adds. "Don't let them get off the hook," she says.

4. Know it gets better with time.

As people age, they usually learn how to deal with various situations and find their niche, socially and professionally. "Luckily, time and experience does a lot," Perez-Edgar says. When kids go off to college, they might click for the first time with other students who have similar interests. When they get into the working world, they may find they excel at ​more independent professions.

"The notion is not to make a shy child into the social salesperson who lives on commission ... the goal is to find their niche," Perez-Edgar says. "If their niche is being an accountant or an academic in the lab, that is wonderful."

5. Get help.

After Genova learned she had social anxiety disorder in college, she was referred to a group therapy program, where she finally felt understood. "It was amazing not to feel alone anymore," she says. "They were as scared as I was."

The program used cognitive behavioral therapy to teach participants how to change their negative thought patterns. They also had to complete assignments such as asking a question in class or calling a friend for coffee. The more Genova did it, the easier it became. "I realized how irrational my thoughts were," she says. "My behavior ended up changing as a result."

Today, she still has some symptoms of social anxiety, but it's no longer holding her back. She's led training sessions​ at work, studies treatments for anxiety professionally and launched a website to raise awareness for social anxiety and direct others to support groups. She even gave a Toastmaster's​ speech and went 10 minutes over the allotted time. "I felt on top of the world after that speech," she says.

Her personal life has changed, too. When she met her now-husband, she refused to go to one of his annual work outings for fear of his colleagues' judgment. But over the past few years, she's gone to every one. "I have the absolute best time of my life," she says.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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