by on January 1, 2018

in Monthly


Not so long ago I had the opportunity to do a talk at a local high school. They asked me to talk about resilience, and although the main theme revolved around stressed teens, at some point during the question and answer part, the issue of children’s temperaments came up.

One of the experts in the field of how humans develop various emotional styles over a lifetime is Richard Davidson Ph.D. currently based at the University of Wisconsin at Maddison, Wisconsin.

Davidson is well-known for his pioneering research on how temperaments evolve, and that the notion of being born shy, “dooming” one to be shy for life, is not always true.

Davidson describes essentially six emotional styles. All these styles have various ranges or spectrums which can be summarized as:
–a child’s ability to be self-aware
–to be aware of others
–sensitivity to the environment or context
–the ability to focus
–the ability to bounce back quickly from adversity (resilience)
–the outlook of being optimistic or pessimistic.

Davidson did his training at Harvard, and while completing his first year at grad school, got to know Dr. Jerry Kagan, a well-respected Harvard academic who pioneered the study of behavioural inhibition and shyness. Kagan’s research fueled the popular belief at the time that we inherit certain genes which then shape the brain (the amygdala in particular) in ways that are immutable.

However, Davidson questioned the notion that shyness is a trait we will have for life. Passionate as a researcher and always having a beginner’s mind Davidson and his research team in Wisconsin used a Robot name Robie to investigate both shy and outgoing children. Children with various temperaments—outgoing, shy and in between— were placed in the presence of a robot which at key moments arrived in a room where these children were playing.

In his book “The Emotional Life of your Brain” he explains in much detail how Robie the Robot study helped psychologists to see that the expression of various emotional styles as not always written in stone. The term neuroplasticity describes how the brain is more like putty, rather than cement and although we knew that in the past, we are currently getting to know the more about the magnitude of plasticity.

For example, some children who at age three were outgoing in the presence of Robie, when studied again at nine years were found to be less outgoing as a result of adversity experienced at age six. Children who were shy as toddlers, in the presence of Robie the Robot, later in life became more outgoing as result of the environment changing their genetic predisposition toward shyness.

We live in a culture where many parents are worried that their shy child may one day be at a disadvantage. Some parents have sleepless nights, worrying that a child may be perceived as being unfriendly, aloof, ill-mannered and that in a culture which favors extroverts and charismatic personalities, shyness may become a liability.

Susan Cain, an introvert and former lawyer, wrote a best-selling book in 2012 as a result of being shy for most of her life. The book, Quiet”, created a movement for shy and introverted individuals, giving them hope and helping them thrive in a culture which does not always honor shyness.

Her 19-minute Ted Talk is worth watching

One of the more intriguing research projects originating from Davidson’s lab is the role meditation can play in changing the emotional styles of humans. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular as a way to manage stress. But is this trend based on a renewed interest in Eastern Spiritual traditions or is it based on solid science?

With the help of functional MRIs and other modalities to study various anatomical regions in the brain, we now know that the environment (meditation) has the ability to influence the expression of genes which impact our temperaments and parts of the brain being responsible for certain behaviours. The quality of these scientific studies continue to improve, and with that, our excitement about new discoveries continues to abound.

Studying how daily meditation contributes to neuroplasticity, and change the neurobiology through a process of epigenetics, helps us to open new doors, supporting families who are challenged by raising children whose temperaments tend toward anxiety, shyness and depression.

There are a number of resources other parents have told me they found helpful in knowing how to parent shy and quiet children. One such resource is a podcast hosted by Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts), which helps parents and educators to empower quiet kids.

For more information see

I have also found one of the most visited websites on children’s health to be filled with great information on dealing with shy children (Visit and enter “8 ways to help the shy child”)


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