- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2001

Lori Ruhl says she noticed how her daughter, Kiersti, would react to strangers and unfamiliar situations even when the child was 9 months old. A picture of baby Kiersti on Santa Claus' lap shows her mouth curled in a tense expression.

"You could see how nervous she was," says Mrs. Ruhl, of Sedro-Wolley, Wash.

Things didn't change dramatically through the years. Kiersti, now 7, does not like loud noises and prefers to watch the other children on the playground rather than join in boisterous play.

While Mrs. Ruhl tries to encourage her daughter to warm up to social situations, she also reassures the child that it is all right to be shy.

"I try and tell her nothing is wrong with it," Mrs. Ruhl says. "She is artistic. She is sensitive. She is a good friend. I just worry about the future. It might get to the point where people think she is a weird kid who does not talk at school."

Kiersti Ruhl is not alone. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Ind., says about 40 to 45 percent of Americans consider themselves shy. Researchers are debating whether shyness can be a learned behavior or is a natural disposition. It can become evident in social situations or in school.

"We have found there are almost as many reasons for shyness as there are shy people," Mr. Carducci says. "It is a myth that shyness is due to low self-esteem."

Why so shy?

While some researchers say shyness is inherited, that concept is still open for debate.

Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University psychology professor who has studied shyness and children for decades, says about 20 percent of infants are born with what he calls "inhibited temperament."

By about 8 weeks of age, those babies will show signs of being sensitive to strangers and loud noises. Their anxiety is manifested in a faster heart rate and louder crying.

"These children have an inherent chemistry that makes them sensitive to anything unfamiliar," Mr. Kagan says.

Biology is not necessarily destiny, however. Life experiences will condition many with an inhibited temperament to "grow out of it," he says.

"About 15 percent of children with an inhibited temperament will become shy," Mr. Kagan says, "but even shyness is not a lifelong condition. Just like you get over a fear of the ocean by dipping your toe in, you gradually get involved in new situations until you get accustomed to them. By adolescence, many shy children are not shy anymore."

Mr. Carducci agrees that exposure to the situations that cause anxiety will eventually help a child overcome that anxiety. He says he does not believe, however, that the tendency to shyness is there from birth.

"There is no way that you can be born shy," Mr. Carducci says. "Shyness involves an excessive sense of self-consciousness, a negative self-evaluation. Your sense of self does not even develop until you are 18 months old."

Deborah C. Beidel, a University of Maryland psychologist and the co-director of the university's Childhood Shyness Program, a research and therapy center for children and social phobias, says shyness probably is a little bit of nature and nurture.

"I do agree that there is some biological underpinning for shyness," she says. "A large part of it has to do with environmental situations, such a specific response to an embarrassing situation. We had one patient who had to sing 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' in a school play. She sang out 'Then one froggy Christmas Eve,' instead of 'foggy Christmas Eve.' She was mortified in those situations ever since."

Some of that conditioning may have to do with modeling behavior they see at home, Ms. Beidel says. If a parent is quiet and shy, a child may pick up on that and act in a similar manner.

"I was painfully shy when I was child, and I have two daughters who are shy," says Dorothy Venditto, mother of a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old in Mount Kisco. N.Y. "It has very slowly faded away, but I am still quiet and reserved. I don't know if it is genetic or just our style. Probably somewhere in the middle."

Shyness and social phobia

In most cases, having a shy child is nothing for parents to worry about, Ms. Beidel says. Within the normal range of shyness would be a child who is "slow to warm up" but eventually interacts with other children within a few minutes. Those children, such as Kiersti Ruhl, tend to be quite talkative at home and have a few close friends.

A child who has social anxiety, a medically recognized disorder, never warms up, Ms. Beidel says.

"A child with social anxiety will refuse to do things such as go to parties, join teams, even go to school," she says. "They might have physical symptoms over these situations, such as stomachaches and a racing heart. A lot of kids who are just a little shy may outgrow it, but a child who exhibits signs of social phobia before about age 8 may need intervention."

That intervention would involve consulting a therapist for play therapy or behavior therapy, Ms. Beidel says. Her clinic concentrates on behavior therapy and social skills training, in which children can learn how to respond in social situations such as joining in a group or inviting a classmate home.

"It is exposure therapy," she says. "We give children a chance to practice what they are afraid of."

Medications such as the anti-depressant Paxil sometimes are prescribed for children with severe social anxiety. Paxil, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating adult social phobia. It is not specifically approved for children, but it is widely prescribed and considered effective, Ms. Beidel says.

School a pressure situation

School seems to be the place where a shy child has the greatest challenge negotiating the social maze, as the youngster may have to make new friends, join groups and speak in front of the class

When Mrs. Venditto's daughter Joanna was 5, she did not speak to her teachers and refused to get up to receive her preschool graduation diploma.

"She is getting much less shy as she gets older," says Mrs. Venditto, who also is the editor of Shykids.com, a support Web site for parents and teens. "She talks more in class, makes more eye contact. Now she plays piano recitals in front of hundreds of people."

Mrs. Ruhl is hoping Kiersti will become more comfortable in school as the years go by.

"I think her teacher took it personally that Kiersti wouldn't talk in class," Mrs. Ruhl says.

Mr. Carducci says preparation and practice, beginning with the start of preschool, can help make the school experience less stressful for children.

"One of the things that needs to happen is that shy children need to be prepared not just for the idea of going to school, but the idea of what happens at school," he says. "Go and show them where they are going to put their coat away, read books and play. Make sure you are going to a school where there is a lot of opportunity for interdependent play. A lot of schools focus on isolated activities, and through those, shy children don't learn to negotiate."

It is not usually necessary to brief the teacher on the child's shyness unless it is impairing the child in some way, Mr. Carducci says.

Culture's effect on the shy child

Technology, regarded as the catalyst for bringing people together in places such as the Internet, is not helping shy children, Mr. Carducci says. As parents get money from an ATM and shop for shoes on line, children miss opportunities to see social interaction, he says.

"It is having an effect," Mr. Carducci says. "Think about it. Children don't see people interacting as much. Children come home and get on their computers. That means social isolation and a loss in negotiation. They play games where the computer decides. They play organized sports where the parents make decisions. The culture has changed. We are losing the spontaneity of social interactions."

Technology also has made society faster (think instant messaging, drive-through dinners), making it more difficult for those who need more time to adjust to situations, Mr. Carducci says.

This also is an era of brash, attention-getting behavior, one that makes it easy for a shy child to get left behind, he says.

"In our society, you have to be more extreme to get noticed," Mr. Carducci says. "You have to have the brand-name clothes. It is all about self-image. The way shy children, particularly teens, cope with that is by acting out or withdrawing"

The best way to help a shy teen is to talk, he says. Explaining that children aren't the only ones with peer pressure may reassure them that it is OK not to act like everyone else.

"You can explain to them about how there is peer pressure everywhere," Mr. Carducci says. "Tell them that work is a lot like high school."

Mrs. Venditto says she worries about how the culture will affect her girls as they mature.

"I believe that an 'in your face' style is considered the fashionable way to behave today, so overcoming fears and gaining confidence is now more difficult than ever for shy children," she says. "It makes it particularly difficult for them to find a way to fit in."

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