Helping a Shy Child

A surprising number of preschoolers who are chatty and confident at home become clingy in social situations. Here's how to help.

Shyness Explained

At birthday parties, while all her classmates are having a terrific time, 4-year-old Victoria Taylor refuses to join in the fun. "Instead of playing with the other children, she glues herself to my leg and cries," says her mother, Nancy, of Savannah, Georgia. "She's never able to relax and enjoy herself."

While many 3- and 4-year-olds can't wait to jump into the action, more inhibited preschoolers can find social situations very stressful. These kids can be quite talkative in the privacy of their own homes but become insecure in the outside world. Although shy kids may appear antisocial, they're actually not. "They're interested in other people and new situations, but their anxiety gets in the way," explains Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at Stanford University, in Stanford, California, and director of the Shyness Institute, in Palo Alto.

Most shy children are born that way, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a Parents adviser, who conducted a large, long-term study of the temperaments of children ages 4 months to 11 years. An oversensitivity to new people and situations seems to be genetic and manifests itself in physical as well as psychological ways.

Recent research by Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, in New York City, suggests that shy people have an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls split-second emotional responses. The same fight-or-flight reaction that makes an average person flee from danger can cause a shy child to feel anxiety in everyday social situations.

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