Shyness Trajectories across the First Four Decades Predict Mental Health Outcomes

Abstract

Although childhood shyness is presumed to predict mental health problems in adulthood, no prospective studies have examined these outcomes beyond emerging adulthood. As well, existing studies have been limited by retrospective and cross-sectional designs and/or have examined shyness as a dichotomous construct. The present prospective longitudinal study (N = 160; 55 males, 105 females) examined shyness trajectories from childhood to the fourth decade of life and mental health outcomes. Shyness was assessed using parent- and self-rated measures from childhood to adulthood, once every decade at ages 8, 12–16, 22–26, and 30–35. At age 30–35, participants completed a structured psychiatric interview and an experimental task examining attentional biases to facial emotions. We found 3 trajectories of shyness, including a low-stable trajectory (59.4%), an increasing shy trajectory from adolescence to adulthood (23.1%), and a decreasing shy trajectory from childhood to adulthood (17.5%). Relative to the low-stable trajectory, the increasing, but not the decreasing, trajectory was at higher risk for clinical social anxiety, mood, and substance-use disorders and was hypervigilant to angry faces. We found that the development of emotional problems in adulthood among the increasing shy trajectory might be explained in part by adverse peer and social influences during adolescence. Our findings suggest different pathways for early and later developing shyness and that not all shy children grow up to have psychiatric and emotional problems, nor do they all continue to be shy.

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Notes

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    Additional analyses examining sex differences by shyness trajectory interactions for outcome measures were performed. However, no sex differences by shyness trajectory interactions emerged for any of the mental health outcomes, attentional bias to angry faces, social competence, and verbal or physical bullying.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Predoctoral Award and Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) to Alva Tang, and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Team Grant (TMH-103145) awarded to Louis A. Schmidt. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. The authors would like to thank the many participants and their families for their continued participation in the longitudinal study and Nicole Folland, Paz Fortier, Sue McKee, Vladimir Miskovic, Jordana Waxman, Shiren Yunus for their help with data collection and organizing the assessments.

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Tang, A., Van Lieshout, R.J., Lahat, A. et al. Shyness Trajectories across the First Four Decades Predict Mental Health Outcomes. J Abnorm Child Psychol 45, 1621–1633 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-017-0265-x

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Keywords

  • Shyness
  • Trajectories
  • Social anxiety
  • Attention bias
  • Mental health