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Is a recent study on shyness in children a throw-back to the refrigerator mom theory?

The refrigerator mom theory was a theory developed in the 1940’s which assumed that mothers of autistic children were cold, “frigid” individuals whose lack of affection had somehow caused their children to become autistic. As a result of this theory, the mothers of autistic children, as wikipedia.com states “suffered from blame, guilt, and self-doubt from the 1950s throughout the 1970s and beyond: when the prevailing medical belief that autism resulted from inadequate parenting was widely assumed to be correct”.

I was a bit suprised today when I discovered an equally mother-persecuting theory in regards to shyness in children. An article posted on ScienceDaily.com yesterday examined the relationship between shyness in children, the stress level of their mother and a gene responsible for serotonin regulation. The article, titled “Stressed moms, genes may cause shy kids”, discuses a study from the University of Maryland which found both “long” and “short” versions of a gene they feel determines shyness, when coupled with certain environmental stimuli. According to the study, depending on which gene version you have and your mother’s level of stress while you are a child, determines if you become a shy adult.

The study found that those kids with the short gene and whose parents constantly experience high levels of stress are more likely to become shyer as they age. However, those kids with the short gene were not as likely to become shy if their mother didn’t experience a continuously high level of stress. In addition, the study also claims that those children with the longer version of the gene did not show the same tendency toward shyness, regardless of the mother’s stress level.

I enjoyed reading about this study because it seems like an interesting marriage between the ever-debated genetics vs. rearing. However, I think it would be more interesting if the researchers factored in just how the mothers in the study dealt with stress, no matter what level of stress it was. For example; if a mother had an unavoidably stressful career, such as emergency room surgeon, how does she deal with the stress? Does she go to yoga or some other activity or does she deal with stress by coming home and screaming at her kids? Surely the children’s demeanor would be more affected by a screaming parent then someone productively managing their stress. It’s probably true that kids with a screaming mother would be shyer because they would always be trying to avoid conflict and “get out of the way” so they wouldn’t get screamed at. Also, why didn’t the researchers look at stressed fathers? Would it hold true that children with the short gene coupled with stressed fathers would be shy too?

Is a recent study on shyness in children a throw-back to the refrigerator mom theory?


Jennifer Bechdel

Jennifer Bechdel, MBA is a freelance and technical writer, as well as a marketing consultant. She focuses on workplace issues, stress, and unemployment topics.


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APA Reference
Bechdel, J. (2018). Is a recent study on shyness in children a throw-back to the refrigerator mom theory?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 26, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/a-throw-back-to-the-refrigerator-mom-theory/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.