Inhibited Babies Become Anxious Adults

inhibited babiesResearchers have been able to confirm the link between behavioral inhibition in babies and young children and anxiety later in life by following a group of babies into their teen years and beyond.1

“The inhibited child will sit and watch, but she doesn’t play alone or with others, ” said developmental psychologist Koraly Pérez-Edgar, PhD. “The idea of being included appears to terrify her.”1

Pérez-Edgar’s research has revealed that this type of extreme shyness is often a predictor of anxiety later in life.1 According to Pérez-Edgar, the behavior of a shy child will evolve as they grow, but they often remain uncomfortable within their own skin, especially in new social situations.1

It is rare for a child to be clinically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before adolescence.1 However, Pérez-Edgar says, “Kids aren’t yet anxious, but can have the temperament that may predispose them to becoming anxious.”1

There is a difference between normal separation anxiety, which is common among two- and three-year-olds, and what is referred to as an “anxious temperament.”1

“When [a behaviorally inhibited] baby is exposed to novel sensory information—it can be something as benign as one of those mobiles you put over the crib or a normal jack-in-the-box—a lot of babies giggle and laugh, they think it’s funny,” said Pérez-Edgar. “But these babies are terrified, they cry and arch their backs—their systems have just said ‘danger, danger, danger.’”1

Later in life, these babies may have a difficult time building relationships and socializing with peers.1

Once the behavioral link had been established, the researchers began to speculate about the neurobiology involved.1 They thought: Could extreme shyness be traced to differences in the brain?1 Developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan predicted that behaviorally inhibited babies may have an overly sensitive limbic system, and in particular, an overly sensitive amygdala.1

The amygdala is what is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.1 When it is overly sensitive, it can cause this response to happen often, even in non-threatening situations, causing anxiety.1 Therefore, when the babies became teenagers and were able to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, Pérez-Edgar reports, “We were able to show that yes, indeed, teenagers who as babies looked so fearful in the face of novelty, in fact their amygdalae did respond more vigorously.”1

However, the direction of the causation remains unknown. Pérez-Edgar explains, “Here we have a chicken versus egg situation. Is it because you’re still temperamentally reactive that your amygdala is overactive, or vice versa?”1

Currently, Pérez-Edgar is conducting a study with children ages nine to 12, observing how attention and temperament are linked to social behavior.1 The amygdala is not only activated by fear, but is also known to be responsive to other social stimuli.1

[1] Pedersen, T. (2014). Inhibited Babies More Likely to Become Anxious Adults. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/04/20/inhibited-babies-more-likely-to-become-anxious-adults/68718.html

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