In another article, we talked about how both temperament and the environment play a role in the development of shyness, and how parenting styles and attachment are key aspects that influence this characteristic. So, how does this look through time?

0-24 months

You can find the origins of shyness at the earliest stages of life, in the temperamental reactivity a baby has and the sensitivity and responsiveness of the parents that care for them. Imagine an infant that has very strong negative emotional reactions; caring for them can be very demanding and their parents might have a hard time being sensitive and providing appropriate support. In turn, this makes it more difficult for them to establish a secure attachment. Instead, this baby is more likely to develop an ambivalent attachment style, which would make them scared of rejection and failure, thus, unable to cope with social situations and challenges. Even more, research has found that ambivalently attached toddlers have higher chances of being withdrawn and insecure later on when they start going to preschool.

Besides attachment, psychological control is also an important aspect for shyness development. There can be two different patterns which display an over-protective behavior. One would be a very intrusive and unnecessary micromanagement of the child’s activities. This kind of interaction gives the child the idea that they are not capable of doing anything without their parents’ help and negates them the opportunity to practice coping skills during challenging situations (appropriate for their developmental stage). The other pattern of over-protective behavior involves criticizing and mocking, which can also threaten the child’s confidence and feeling of self-worth. So, whether it is extremely affectionate or negative, over-controlling behaviors towards a withdrawn child will make them more prone to maintain a shy and reserved behavior later in life.

What to do at this stage? Pay attention to your baby’s cues and respond to them; being sensitive to your little one’s needs can help them feel secure and confident later on. Spend quality time with your baby, doing age-appropriate activities. Be warm, praise them, show positive affect towards them to reduce their chance of anxiety in the future, and help them have a strong background for later social competence.

What’s important at this stage? Find a balance between being supportive and caring (so that your baby feels secure), but avoid having an over-protective or controlling behavior (so that your baby feels capable of doing things by themselves).

2-5 years

Yes, those early moments are essential for your baby’s social development, however, that doesn’t mean that their social tendencies are not malleable after the 24 months mark. Parents keep playing an important role during the preschool years. Research has shown that shyer kids have more over-protective and less sensitive parents who fail to encourage their autonomy.

But how do you know if you’re being supportive or over-protective? There’s a fine line that divide these two. Parents are supposed to be greatly involved and caring all the time, right? Well, it’s all a matter of context and what the situation calls for. An interesting study examined parents’ behavior with their children in two different contexts. It was found that when parents are more caring and apprehensive during their child’s free play (a context where children can experiment without needing so much help), their children were also more restrained when playing with peers, suggesting that playing with peers becomes more of a threat than a fun social engagement for them. On the other hand, when parents acted in this way during difficult tasks (a context where children were challenged and could become upset), their children were less reserved.

We have to keep in mind that your child’s own self-regulation abilities and emotional arousal will play a role in how much your parental behaviors will influence them. On the one hand, children who respond calmly to challenging situations (who have good self-regulation) cope better, even if socialization from parents is not on point. On the other, children who depend more on external sources of support (who have poor self-regulation) need more caring and compassionate parenting to be able to cope with situations and are more vulnerable to the negative effects that a controlling parent can have over them; thus, they have a greater risk of being shy and inhibited.

What to do at this stage? Get to know your child and their personality, notice when they need more support or when they can manage on their own. Take into account the context and difficulty of the task at hand before deciding that your child needs help.

What’s important during this stage? Know the situation’s demands and your little one’s needs to decide which parental response will be more effective and which would, on the contrary, be unfavorable for your child’s proficient social development.

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