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Child Temperament Influences Eating Habits

A new study by Norwegian researchers suggests temperamental children have an increased risk for developing an unhappy relationship with food. Parents are advised to work closely with their temperamental child to help them develop good eating habits.

Experts explain that temperament is often equated with anger, but it embraces much more. Temperament is the child’s fundamental way of dealing with his environment and himself. It can be regarded as a precursor to what is called personality in adults.

Temperament involves how the child thinks, acts and behaves across situations and over time. For example, does the child become frustrated easily and find it difficult to regulate her emotions, or is she able to regulate her impulses or complete a task even when tired? Is the child outgoing, curious and exploratory or a little anxious in new situations and with new people?

Parents are, of course, important in developing good eating habits. They do the food shopping, prepare the food and are responsible for the meals.

Numerous studies have found that parents are their children’s role models through the way they relate to food and meals themselves and how they relate to the child’s eating, for example: “You need to eat dinner before you get dessert

The new researcher from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) shows that the child’s own characteristics also play a role in the development of eating habits.

The study, ‚ÄúTemperament as a predictor of eating behavior in middle childhood — A fixed effects approach,” appears in Science Direct.

Researchers investigated the topic as part of the Trondheim Early Secure Study (TESS) project, which is based at NTNU. When the approximately 800 children were 4, 6, 8 and 10 years old, the researchers asked parents about their children’s eating habits and temperament.

Investigators then examined whether temperament could predict how eating habits evolved.

Their findings show that children who are thought of as temperamental (e.g., getting frustrated quickly, being more prone to fluctuating moods than others), are particularly vulnerable to developing eating habits that can lead to unhealthy weight gain and difficulties with food and eating.

They are more likely to resort to emotional eating over time, are more likely to eat because food is available, even though they may be satiated, and they become pickier eaters over time.

Children with this temperament also showed greater emotional undereating later — that is, they were more likely to eat less when they were sad, restless, scared or angry.

Establishing good eating habits during childhood is important, since the habits often extend into our teens and adulthood. Good eating habits are important for having a good relationship with food and eating and to avoid overweight, the researchers say.

Eating habits are not just about what we eat, but also about how we relate to food and eating.

Are you picky or do you love all kinds of food? Do you eat slowly or fast? Do you eat until your plate is empty even though you’re actually full? Do you use food as comfort?

These are characteristics of our eating habits that affect what and how much we eat, and therefore also our weight.

Given that temperamental children are more vulnerable to developing unhealthy eating habits, it is even more important that the parents of these children pay particular attention to supporting healthy eating.

This can be especially challenging for parents of children who have greater moods swings than others. Parents of temperamental children more often have to deal with negative emotions than parents of children who don’t easily become frustrated or angry. It’s not surprising that parents of temperamental children more often resort to strategies that may be less than optimal.

A previous study showed that if the child is easily triggered emotionally, parents are more likely to use food to comfort the child. The child learns that food helps when she experiences anger, sadness or other difficult feelings and thus succumbs to emotional eating more over time.

Even if we parents are not — nor need to be — perfect, we may want to be aware of how to help support healthy eating habits in children and how to best meet children’s emotions.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Child Temperament Influences Eating Habits

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Child Temperament Influences Eating Habits. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/12/child-temperament-influences-eating-habits/157091.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Jun 2020 (Originally: 12 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Jun 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.