Link Between Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety

shy toddler boy holding into dad's legs

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Behavioral Inhibition characteristics are used to determine the potential for developing anxiety by examining behaviors in children like fear, shyness, or withdrawal in new or strange situations and environments.  

While research on behavioral inhibition and its reliability for predicting anxiety later on in life is still in its infancy, studies completed to date suggest that this could be an important indicator that could enable earlier treatment. Social anxiety can be an overwhelming mental illness with severe negative effects. Early identification and intervention are important to improve quality of life and to prevent other conditions like depression

Onset of Social Anxiety

While scientists have not identified the specific cause of anxiety disorders like social anxiety disorder (SAD), many believe that it is linked to biological, psychological, and social factors. Many people experience severe social anxiety for years without getting appropriate treatment, either because they do not seek help or because they are inaccurately diagnosed. Untreated anxiety can result in severe depression and even suicidal behaviors, so it is important to get help as early as possible.

For many, social anxiety begins in the teens and into young adulthood. By identifying people at an early age and giving them the opportunity for effective treatment options, the severity of social anxiety can be minimized. Behavioral inhibition is an important aspect of childhood as it may be an early indicator of anxiety disorders and valuable for obtaining an appropriate diagnosis.

Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety

A growing body of research indicates a connection between childhood personality styles and developing social anxiety later in life. Behavioral inhibition is a personality type that shows a tendency toward distress and nervousness in new situations. Behavioral inhibition in children includes shyness around unfamiliar people and withdrawal from new places.

Early behavioral inhibition is not a guarantee of developing anxiety later on. As children grow older, many learn to respond to new situations and new people in a more rational way. However, others will continue to show anxious behaviors throughout their lives and into adulthood.

Some research has started to examine how to decrease behavioral inhibition to minimize social anxiety.

  • Caregiving strategies such as those that encourage independence, confidence, and resourcefulness in children may help overcome behavioral inhibition later on.
  • Providing children with exposure to new social situations and activities can help them build their own social skills.
  • Overprotective caregiving, such as giving help when it is not necessary, can increase behavioral inhibition and may reinforce anxiety in new situations.

The limited research available suggests that the best way to encourage a child to be confident and not anxious is to encourage him or her to be independent and give him or her the opportunity to problem-solve for himself or herself. This may build a foundation on which the child does not need to rely on others in social situations, lessening the chances of social anxiety developing later on.

Through the study of behavioral inhibition and social anxiety, therapists can intervene early to prevent anxiety from worsening to the point of inhibiting daily activities.

If you or a loved one are struggling with social anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is displaying behavioral inhibition, this is not necessarily a sign of social anxiety disorder. However, it is important to monitor your child's behavior to see if it worsens. As a parent, be sure to give your child lots of opportunities to problem solve before you jump to the rescue. As your child's confidence grows, you may notice that behavioral inhibition is lessened.

If behavioral inhibition seems to grow rather than lessen over time, it may be helpful to talk with your doctor about your child's behavior. At that point, you may discuss whether an assessment for anxiety is warranted and if intervention might be appropriate. Remember that early intervention is key to managing anxiety, so don't feel discouraged if your child is given a diagnosis. It is better to identify a problem at an early age before it grows into something more unmanageable during the teen years.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."