A new study by a Brigham Young University professor shows that shy behavior in children as young as age 4 hurts their developing self-perceptions. These shy children run greater risks of lower self-perceptions and decreased social acceptance by age seven. The study appears in the latest issue of the academic journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

“For years, the notion was that aggressive kids were at greatest risk for negative outcomes because they tend to be rejected socially,” said Larry Nelson, assistant professor of marriage, family, and human development at BYU and lead author on the study. “What this study shows is that young kids, ages 4 through 7, who are shy and socially withdrawn can develop serious self-perception and acceptance problems, leading them to feel poorly about themselves at an age when most kids feel great about themselves.”

Kenneth Rubin and Nathan Fox, both professors of human development at the University of Maryland, are co-authors on the study.

Nelson points to previous research that shows early childhood behavior can be extremely influential over a lifetime. Children who are overly aggressive tend to push away their peers, leading to problems interacting with other people. They have a higher risk of juvenile delinquency, drug use, and unemployment. Shy children also face difficulties with peer acceptance, but they tend to internalize the negative effects resulting in a greater risk for low self-esteem, depression, and marrying later in life.

“This study adds to the growing literature exploring the outcomes of social withdrawal in childhood,” said Robert J. Coplan, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. “In particular, I am very pleased to see attention being paid to the differential impact of different types of social withdrawal for boys versus girls and how this plays out over time. It is only by understanding the complexities of these linkages that we can begin to assist socially withdrawn boys and girls who might benefit from early intervention.”

Nelson and his fellow researchers carefully observed the social interaction of over 150 children at age 4 and again at age 7, identifying two distinct types of non-social behavior. The first type consists of reticent children who hover on the edge of peer groups, carefully watching kids play together. These shy children are unable to participate although they’d like to. They begin to stand out to their peers as different. As a result, reticent children begin to feel a sense of alienation from other kids, making them feel bad about themselves.

The second type is children who withdraw from social interaction not because they have difficulty in interacting with peers but because they prefer to play with objects rather than friends. Instead of waiting on the perimeter of their peers, these withdrawn children will often sit alone in a distant part of the room playing with a single toy. The researchers asked these same children, now age 7, how they felt about their physical and cognitive abilities and how well they thought their peers liked them. The results show that both types of withdrawn children will suffer adverse effects in their self-image and peer acceptance due to their nonsocial behaviors by age 7.

“Children who demonstrated reticent behavior at age 4 went on to feel worse about themselves at age 7,” said Nelson. “In nearly every case, those kids who are withdrawn in any way at age seven feel poorer about their physical and cognitive abilities and they don’t think that they’re liked by their peers.”

However, the data suggests that there is a sharp gender differentiation in how negative social withdrawal can be. For boys, shyness seems to have a greater impact than for girls partially due to different cultural expectations for each gender, Nelson believes.

“In our society it’s a little more accepted, maybe even encouraged, for young girls’ play behaviors to be quiet and reserved,” Nelson said. “For boys, however, it’s kind of culturally expected that they’ll be running around and roughhousing, and that expectation tends to set in. So kids will notice boys who don’t do that, and at the same time, shy boys may get the message that if they’re not roughhousing then they must be doing something wrong.”

As for girls, Nelson said, their self-esteem seems based largely on the quality of relationships they have with their peers rather than on how withdrawn they are.

“What appears to be the key for girls in feeling good about themselves is being accepted by their peer group,” Nelson said. “If they’re liked by their peers at age 4, they’ll likely feel good about themselves at age 7. One interesting thing about this study is that peer relationships appear to be extremely important to girls as early as age 4.”