Link Between Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety

Behavioral Inhibition in Children May Be an Indicator of Anxiety Disorders

shy toddler boy holding into dad's legs
Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

Social anxiety can be an overwhelming mental illness with severe negative effects. Early identification and intervention are important to improve the quality of life and to prevent other conditions like depression. 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.

Research on behavioral inhibition and its reliability for predicting anxiety later on in life is still relatively small, but research completed to date suggests that this could be an important indicator of anxiety and could help the condition be treated earlier on when it can be easier to treat.

When Does Social Anxiety Begin?

While scientists have not identified the specific cause of anxiety disorders like social anxiety, many believe that the cause 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 treatment out or because they are inaccurately diagnosed. Untreated anxiety can results in severe depression and even suicidal behaviors so it is believed to be important to get intervention 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 may be an early identifier for anxiety disorders and be valuable for getting an appropriate diagnosis.

Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety

A growing body of research indicates that there is a connection between childhood personality styles and developing social anxiety later in life.

 Behavioral inhibition shows itself as a personality type that shows a tendency towards 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 them to be independent and give them the opportunity to problem-solve for themselves.

This may build a foundation in which the child does not 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 on to prevent anxiety from worsening to the point of inhibiting daily activities.


Chronis,-Tuscano, A., Degnan, K., Pine, D. et al. "Stable Early Maternal Report of Behavioral Inhibition Predicts Lifetime Social Anxiety Disorder in Adolescence". Journal of the American Academy of Child/Adolescent Psychology, 928-935, 2009.

Svihra, M. "Behavioral Inhibition: A predictor of anxiety." Pediatric Children's Health, 547-550, 2004. 

Continue Reading