Our temperament is the sum of personal characteristics that we are born with. It is different from personality, which is shaped by our environment and experiences. I have written elsewhere about how a cautious or sensitive temperament can contribute to picky eating. In this article, I am going to focus on something called ‘emotionality’.
Back in the seventies, Arnold Buss and Robert Plomin* developed the Emotionality-Activity-Sociability (EAS) model. They proposed three fundamental temperamental traits: ‘Emotionality’ refers to how reactive a child is as they experience anger, fear and distress. So for example, a child with high negative emotionality might cry and fuss a lot as a child. ‘Activity’ is about how energetically a child approaches what they are doing and ‘sociability’ is concerned with how much a child looks for the company and attention of others**.
A few years ago, a group of leading British child-feeding researchers looked at the relationship between how children eat and their temperament.
All the best academic research is born of spotting missing pieces of the puzzle. The academics noticed that while the link between eating and temperament had been explored in adults, adolescents and even infants, not much work had been done looking at temperament and eating in school-aged children. They designed a study to address this gap. One of their aims was to find out whether children who were described as having a more difficult temperament would also be trickier to feed. Would they be fussier and enjoy food less?***
What they found was fascinating: sociability, shyness and activity were not related to problematic eating behaviours. However, there was a really strong link between food avoidance and emotionality. Children who were more emotional
Enjoyed food less
Were fussier eaters
Ate more slowly
Displayed more emotional over-eating (eating in response to difficult feelings)
Displayed more emotional under-eating (eating less in response to difficult feelings)
Had higher satiety responsiveness (being sensitive to feelings of fullness)
(Haycraft, Farrow, Meyer, Powell and Blissett, 2011)
A couple of years later, a Norwegian study**** was published which considered whether a child’s temperament could predict picky eating. This was a longitudinal project, meaning that it followed the same group of children over time. Longitudinal studies like this are very useful because if we can learn more about predicting problematic behaviours, we are in a better position to work on prevention and early intervention.
The Norwegian researcher (Getrud Sofie Hafstad) and her colleagues, found that child emotionality does predict picky eating, supporting the findings of the UK researchers. Hafstad et al. suggest that perhaps a child’s difficult temperament can affect how parents approach feeding, leading them to use more pressure at mealtimes and to try and control how much a child eats. Approaches like these have been shown to make picky eating worse.
This idea - that children’s temperament not only impacts how they eat, but also how parents may approach feeding - is an interesting one. It fits with everything we know about the bidirectional nature of feeding; the fact that a child’s eating behaviours affect how we feed them and vice-versa. That is why it is so important understand the feeding relationship, rather than simply saying that eating problems can be entirely located in the child OR that they are 100% caused by parents.
* Buss, A. H., & Plomin, R. (1975). A temperament theory of personality development. Wiley-Interscience.
** Grady, J. S., & Karraker, K. (2017). Mother and child temperament as interacting correlates of parenting sense of competence in toddlerhood. Infant and Child Development, 26(4).
*** Haycraft, E., Farrow, C., Meyer, C., Powell, F., & Blissett, J. (2011). Relationships between temperament and eating behaviours in young children. Appetite, 56(3), 689-692.
**** Hafstad, G. S., Abebe, D. S., Torgersen, L., & von Soest, T. (2013). Picky eating in preschool children: The predictive role of the child's temperament and mother's negative affectivity. Eating behaviors, 14(3), 274-277.