A 7-year study of twins found that behavioral inhibition in childhood is associated with social anxiety in adolescence. Behavioral inhibition was primarily assessed through shyness. Parental stress and a number of other factors were found to influence the strength of this association. The study was published in Development and Psychopathology.
Behavioral inhibition is a property of one’s temperament that makes the person prone to withdrawing or reticence when faced with a novelty or threat. It is somewhat similar to shyness. However, shyness refers to feelings of discomfort in social situations, while behavioral inhibition affects the behavior in both social and nonsocial situations.
Behavioral inhibition has long attracted research interests in the field of mental health as it is seen as a “trait that biases reactions to later stressors in a way that can result in maladaptive behavioral patterns.” Childhood behavioral inhibition has also been reported to predict social anxiety in later years. This association is important, because anxiety disorders are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. They primarily affect 15–34-year-olds, with 8.6% of adolescents and 13% of adults meeting diagnostic criteria for the social anxiety disorder.
In order to study the links between behavioral inhibition and social anxiety across adolescence and explore factors that affect the strength of this relationship, including genetic factors, study author H. Hill Goldsmith and his colleagues conducted a 7-year longitudinal study of 1,735 children from 868 families. Data were collected from them at three time points – when they were 8, 13 and 15 years of age. The average number of participants at each time point was 700 twin pairs + parents. All participants had data collected from them in at least one timepoints.
At all three time points, researchers assessed behavioral inhibition and social anxiety. Behavioral inhibition was assessed using an array of observational (Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery, Lab-TAB and rating by the researcher) and parent-report-based (Children’s Behavior Questionnaire, CBQ and Early Adolescence Temperament Questionnaire-revised, EATQ-R) methods for assessing shyness.
Social Anxiety assessments were obtained from parents’ ratings (Social Anxiety scales from the MacArthur Health and Behavior Questionnaire, HBQ) and self-reports of children (Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children, MASC). These assessments were combined to create unified measures of behavioral inhibition and social anxiety.
Aside from this, researchers made assessments of overprotective parenting (Child-Rearing Practices Report, CRPR), parental internalization of psychopathology (Composite International Diagnostic Interview, CIDI and the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire, MPQ), parenting stress (Parenting Stress Index, PSI), socioeconomic status (education and occupation of parents), peer victimization (7 items from HBQ) and pubertal development at ages 13 and 15.
Results showed that both behavioral inhibition and social anxiety were relatively stable over time. Behavioral inhibition predicted social anxiety, but this relationship likely goes in both directions as social anxiety also predicts behavioral inhibition. Factors such as parenting stress, socioeconomic status, peer victimization and internalization of psychopathology were found to influence the strength of the association between behavioral inhibition and social anxiety.
Additionally, “Behavioral inhibition and social anxiety are both moderately heritable, behavioral inhibition more than social anxiety. The genetic influences on behavioral inhibition also impact differences in social anxiety, as do the nonshared environmental effects, to a much weaker degree,” study authors report.
Due to its longitudinal nature and a comprehensive set of assessments used, this study sheds important light on the relationship between behavioral inhibition and social anxiety through puberty. However, it should be noted that assessments of behavioral inhibition used in the study mostly captured shyness, that the associations between behavioral inhibition and social anxiety likely goes in both directions.
The study “Childhood inhibition predicts adolescent social anxiety: Findings from a longitudinal twin study” was authored by H. Hill Goldsmith, Emily C. Hilton, Jenny M. Phan, Katherine L. Sarkisian, Ian C. Carroll, Kathryn Lemery-Chalfant, and Elizabeth M. Planalp.