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Q&A: Psychologist Discusses Research on Shyness in Children

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Since 1978, Jerome Kagan, the Starch Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has been researching shyness in children.

Based on observations of 800 to 900 Caucasian, largely middle-class children who have ranged in age from infancy to 13 years, he and his team have determined that some very inhibited children were born that way, and that their brains react differently to the stimuli of new situations than do those of other children.

Very shy children, they have found, also are more likely than the uninhibited to be tall and thin, to have blue eyes, to be well-behaved, and to suffer from hay fever and eczema--because of higher blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Mr. Kagan, who currently chairs Harvard's psychology department, discussed his findings with Staff Writer Millicent Lawton.

Q. So often we think of shy people as having lesser reactions to new things than normal . . .

A. By lesser reaction you mean they don't approach it, but ...physiologically, internally, they're very reactive.

Q. And so is it an overreaction to novelty?

A. It's not an overreaction. The way you want to see it is that new situations or new people tend to automatically produce a physiological reaction which then leads the person to sort of stop and not approach, or, in extreme cases, retreat. Everybody [might] do that, right? But ... these inhibited children will do it to mildly novel events, while the average person will not.

Q. What types of events can set a child off?

A. In 2- to 3-year-olds, we're talking about a neighbor's house, a strange store, thunder, lightning, or, of course, an unfamiliar person, a stranger.

Q. Is the reaction something that changes as the child develops?

A. Oh, sure, as the child develops, if the child's extreme, then no child likes to be shy and fearful so they try to gain control over it....

The general rule [is], you change a lot between birth and age 7. After age 7, you don't change very much. If you're extremely shy and fearful at 7--the odds are about two-thirds of those kids will be shy as adolescents.

I would say, if you start with 10 very shy children at age 1, you'll end up with 3 who are very shy as adolescents.

Q. What types of situations might set them off as a 10-year-old?

A. A very challenging assignment in school, a very scary movie.

Q.These are, are they not, reactions that many children would exhibit?

A. Oh, sure. There're two kinds of fearful children. One kind acquired it with no special temperament as a result of having stress in their early years--[parents'] marital quarreling, abuse, neglect.

Then there's this group. And they look the same.... To a teacher they would appear to be the same. But they're different.

Q. The two children are different because ...

A. They are different physiologically. The child who acquired it has the normal physiology of most children. Inhibited children have a very excitable sympathetic nervous system [the nerve cells along the spinal column that control the heart, stomach, etc].

Q. These are the kids that tend to sit on the sidelines?

A. Often they're very smart. They don't like groups, so often if they come from middle-class homes they get the best grades in the class. They become poets and scientists and computer programmers. They pick vocations, if they're smart, that allow them to work alone and not with other people....

If they are academically competent, they're lives are fine.

Q. And if they're not?

A. If they're not academically competent, and they live in lower-class neighborhoods, then they are in trouble. Because they can't use academic work as a compensation. And lower-class peer groups tend to value outgoingness, so these are the kids who are usually very anxious.

Q. For people interacting with very shy children, be they teachers, parents, what is the best way to handle them?

A. If you're sure you have one of these kids, you don't want to press them too hard.

These children are isolates in the classroom, and some teachers feel, well, that's very bad for a child to be an isolate, and they force them too hard. So you have to be sensitive. You don't want to put too much pressure on such children to join the group and be sociable.

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