Some infants, toddlers and older youngsters who we expect should be comfortable in social interactions shun anyone with whom they are not immediately familiar.  Quite a few farmers, especially single men and women involved in agriculture, also tend to be socially reclusive and avoid all but the most necessary social exchanges.

Perhaps farming enables bashful farmers to find a niche in society, but there is more to the story.  Recently published research about socially reticent young children who do not want to leave their parent’s protection after the usual period of “stranger fear” may offer an explanation why some farm people cautiously prefer to stay alone.

It’s good news that most socially reserved youngsters grow into adults who can attend college and give business presentations comfortably, according to an article authored by Kirsten Weir in the November 2014 Monitor on Psychology.  Shy children abound.

A person I know who is a highly successful young parent and heads up a legal firm, was so shy for a while before age 5 that she hid behind her mother’s skirt in stores whenever someone talked with them while they were shopping. 

With coaching that involved practicing how to behave bravely, this young person became more confident and can now comfortably address audiences of thousands of people during speaking engagements. 

This person’s mother says her daughter “hated” the practice sessions.  Would this shy youngster be successful now if she had not practiced how to handle herself in situations that were scary for her?

Social shyness and sensitivity to others are positively correlated, according to research by Dr. Robert Coplan at Carleton University in Ottawa which is cited in the Monitor article.  Behaving cautiously and slowly warming up to people may have survival benefits, says Coplan.

But shyness has a downside because these youngsters spend less time interacting with others and may be subjected to bullying and rejection.  Anxiety may be the biggest risk for bashful children, says Coplan. 

Social anxiety occurs temporarily in most children but is problematic for about 10 percent who later are prone to anxiety disorders, depression and sometimes abuse of substances in an effort to feel more confident. 

The majority become well-adjusted adults as they gradually learn healthy ways to manage their shyness.  They learn to regulate their reactions, says Coplan, which gives them advantages in later life.

Sometimes harsh treatment by peers and others as youngsters contributes to their early shyness but they succeed in later life.  One man I know was severely teased as a child for his small stature but today, some thirty years later, he is admired for his innovative farming methods and his service on many boards and committees.

In what has become well known through news stories a local deceased farmer left many millions in his estate to a number of churches.  This man was described as reserved, and even a bit eccentric in some media reports, but few suspected he had accumulated significant wealth during his farming career. 

He set out to achieve what he wanted in life, and did he ever succeed!

Farmers and other people may be socially shy when young and sometimes later in life because of their biological make-up.  Research cited in the Monitor article indicates that the amygdala, a small part of the brain stem that controls the fear response, is more reactive in shy children.

These same researchers advise parents of shy children to back off a little, to be supportive, and to let these children take small steps toward doing things on their own.  Parents who focus too much on their shy children’s behaviors can make them even more self-conscious, but showing these children how to act brave can also give them useful tools.

One teenage boy came with his parents to see me at my office some years ago because he was getting beat up by rowdy guys at school.  He was so scared when walking through the high school hallways that he slunk along the walls when it was time to change classrooms.

Over several sessions I showed this nice-looking but fearful fellow how to stand up straight, to greet his peers assertively and pleasantly and to reciprocate “horse play” with guys who routinely pushed and shoved each other in fun.  He also took karate and piano lessons.

The result: this young man became popular in school and now is a performing musician; he completed college and graduate school.

It’s not unusual for shy youngsters and adults to be highly attuned to other people.  They observe from a distance and gauge if it is okay to interact before approaching others. 

These persons need our respect and sometimes our gentle assistance to help them acquire the skills to behave confidently.  They will be our friends forever if we treat them right and help them in ways that make them feel comfortable.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.