Behavioral Inhibition as a childhood predictor of social anxiety, Part 1.

Behavioral inhibition is a temperament that has been linked to development of social anxiety disorder. Behavioral inhibition (BI) relates to the tendency to experience distress and to withdraw from unfamiliar situations, people, or environments. BI is a stable trait in a subset of children. Limited research suggests that helping children to feel confident and independent in social environments may reduce the stability of BI.

Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety
A growing body of research is dedicated to investigating the relationship between personality styles in childhood and later onset of anxiety disorders. Behavioral inhibition is a personality style that has been heavily studied and linked to development of anxiety disorders in adulthood, particularly social anxiety. Some studies (e.g., Chronis-Tuscano et al., 2009) have reported a link between behavioral inhibition in childhood and later development of social anxiety disorder. One study (Schwartz et al., 1999) found that of children who were classified as inhibited at 2 years of age, 61% of these children reported social anxiety symptoms at age 13, whereas 27% of those classified as uninhibited at age 2 reported social anxiety symptoms. Other studies have suggested that social avoidance and fearfulness in childhood are predictive of social phobia in high school.

What is behavioral inhibition?
Behavioral inhibition is a personality style, or temperament, that relates to the tendency to: 1) feel distress or fear, and 2) to withdraw when faced with novel environments, situations, or people. Children showing behavioral inhibition tend to be afraid, anxious, or uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations, and tend to stop playing and withdraw when around unfamiliar people. These children tend to be very vigilant of their surroundings during these unfamiliar situations. They do not tend to approach new people, situations, or objects.

Stability of Behavioral Inhibition Across Childhood:
Studies have investigated whether behavioral inhibition tendencies change or remain stable in children over time. These studies have shown that typically, as children grow older, they learn to respond in more varied ways in response to new situations. On the other hand, some of the children who show behavioral inhibition early in childhood tend to continue to show these tendencies throughout childhood. In other words, a subset of children shows stable behavioral inhibition throughout childhood, whereas other children show much more variability in behavioral inhibition and do not show these tendencies later in childhood.

What factors influence the stability of behavioral inhibition?
There has been little research on factors reducing the stability of behavioral inhibition across childhood. A few studies suggest that some caregiving strategies may be helpful in reducing the stability of BI. Specifically, a caregiving style that encourages children to develop independence and confidence may help children reduce their distress in new social environments. More specifically, caregivers could provide children with opportunities to engage in social activities and to excel in these social activities. A few studies suggest that when caregivers are over-responsive (i.e., provide assistance when a child does not need help) or impose control when it is not necessary to do so, these strategies may reinforce children’s anxiety in new situations. Some researchers hypothesize that responding with help when it is not needed sends the child the message that their anxiety was warranted. In turn, this reinforces the presence of anxiety in that particular situation. In summary, limited research suggests that the best way to encourage children to feel independent and less afraid in social environments is to help them to feel as though they don’t need to depend on them in these novel situations.

Read the full article at:

Fox, N.A., Henderson, H.A., Marshall, P.J., Nichols, K.E., & Ghera, M.M.

(2005). Behavioral inhibition: Linking biology and behavior within a developmental framework. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 235-262.

Also cited within this section
Chronis-Tuscano, A., Degnan, K.A., Pine, D., Perez-Edgar, K., Henderson, H.A., Diaz, Y.,

Raggi, V.L., & Fox, N.A. (2009). Stable early maternal report of behavioral inhibition predicts lifetime Social Anxiety Disorder in adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 48, 928-935.

Schwartz, C.E., Snidman, N., & Kagan, J. (1999). Adolescent social anxiety as an outcome of inhibited temperament in childhood. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 38, 1008-1015.


What are your thoughts?

How does your child react to new or unfamiliar people or places? How might you be able to support him/her in feeling more independent and confident?

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