Active, persistent, intense, sensitive. Whether we're adults, teens, or even toddlers, we're each born with our own emotional style, or temperament. Our temperament affects our behavior, personality, and even our health.
If you want to encourage your kids to eat better and exercise more, it's a good idea to understand their temperaments. Once you do, you can work with who they are, rather than struggling to change their inborn traits, says Nicole Welsch, LRD, a pediatric nutritionist with Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. Understand temperament and you'll also understand more about your child's food and exercise "personality."
There are nine temperament traits recognized by psychologists; a child's overall temperament is a combination of these traits. Read on to see which of these traits seem to fit your child, and how you can work with him to improve his nutrition and boost physical activity.
Temperament Trait: Activity
This refers to how physical your child is. Does she tend to sit quietly or is she a blur of motion?
- Less active: A more sedentary child may be a breeze at the dinner table (no muss, no fuss) but it may take a bit of effort to get her moving and actively playing. So start with what you know she likes. Ronda Rose-Kayser, a certified family life educator with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D., suggests, "If they love to draw, see if you can't get them drawing with chalk on the sidewalk." Does your child like reading? Ask her to act out a story.
- Always moving: To get an active child to sit still long enough to eat nutritious foods, have her burn off some of her energy with a game of tag or a bike ride before mealtime. Fidgeting at the table is still bound to happen, however. Try giving her a swivel chair or something to play with on the table, Rose-Kayser says. Exercise is less of a challenge: Active kids are usually already inclined toward physical activity.
Temperament Trait: Regularity
This is all about how much routine your child needs. Can you set your watch by her, or does she have only a few consistent patterns?
- More predictable: Kids who like regular routines eat better and exercise more when meals, snacks, and physical activities are scheduled. Think about signing up a child with this trait for a swim class or regular team sport.
- Less predictable: These kids also need regular meal routines, says Rose-Kayser. But they may also need between-meal snacks. And they may also be unpredictable with portions, eating more or less from one meal to the next. Kids are generally pretty good at self-regulating their food intake, so if your child is healthy and following the normal growth patterns according to his doctor, don't worry about how much he is eating every day. To help kids with this trait exercise more, encourage spontaneous free-form play instead of regularly scheduled activities, which may bore them over time.
Temperament Trait: Intensity
This refers to your child's emotional energy. Is she mellow, or does she react strongly (negatively or positively) to situations?
- Mellow: Kids who are more mellow tend to be low-key in their response to new foods and activities, Rose-Kayser says, so it may be more difficult to know what they like. When in doubt, ask.
- Emotionally energetic: Help kids with this trait eat better and exercise more by offering them lots of choices. Because this child's interests may change quickly, expose her often to new foods (without pressure) and provide positive reinforcement for even her small efforts of trying or tasting new foods, Welsch suggests. Try serving food in fun ways: Cut vegetables or sandwiches into silly shapes, offer dipping sauces, or serve foods on cool plates. And give her choices of physical activity (bike ride? neighborhood walk? team sport?), multiple exposures to new activities, and lots of positive reinforcement.
Temperament Trait: Approach/Withdrawal
This refers to your child's first response to new people, situation, foods, or other changes. Is he quick to check them out? Or does he shy away from new things?
- Approaches quickly: This child may naturally enjoy trying new foods and sports.
- Hesitant: A child who holds back needs more encouragement to try new things. He's also more likely to try something new when he knows what to expect, Rose-Kayser says. Try offering a new food three or four times, or asking him to help make dinner. He will probably prefer physical activities at home, in a small group, or with friends he knows, Rose-Kayser says. This child may require a bit more patience from you -- it may take more than a dozen tries before he likes a new food.
Temperament Trait: Persistence
Does your child have a short or long attention span? Does she stick with things, even if problems arise? Or does she give up easily and say, "I can't”?
- Gives up easily: A child with this trait may want to give up quickly on new foods, but don't you give up trying to interest and encourage them. Welsch suggests offering foods in different forms (for example, offer vegetables cooked or fresh, preparing them different ways). You can also pair a new food with an old favorite. And definitely continue to make healthy choices for yourself. Your child will notice and follow. Physical activities may take longer to learn if this child gets overwhelmed easily. Celebrate her successes. "Praise specifically if they try an activity and stick with it," Rose-Kayser tells WebMD. "And don't just praise the end result, but the whole process of trying."
- Persistent: Getting a persistent child engaged in a new activity or even new foods may be easy because persistent kids usually like to finish things. They may even be competitive, Rose-Kayser says, depending on their other traits.
Temperament Trait: Adaptability
This refers to how easily your child adjusts to changes. Does he adapt easily or resist them?
- Adapts easily: When it comes to boosting nutrition or trying out new activities, adaptable kids usually go with the flow.
- Resists change: This type of child is a natural planner. She likes to know what's coming next. Unite food and personality by taking her food shopping or encouraging her to cook new foods with you. The same strategy applies to new physical activities. The more your child knows about a new activity in advance and the more time she has to get used to the idea, the more comfortable she'll be with it.
Temperament Trait: Mood
This has to do with your child's general outlook. Does she tend to be smiling and cheerful, generally positive? Or is she more serious, thoughtful, or even negative?
- Outgoing, cheerful: A more outgoing child will probably be receptive to new foods or activities and may easily find things she likes about each.
- Introverted, contemplative: "These kids just tend to be more serious and thoughtful," Rose-Kayser says. "They're also usually very analytical." It may take positive reinforcement from you -- and some discussion -- to get a child with this temperament trait to eat better. Rose-Kayser suggests asking questions such as: "What was one thing you liked about that meal?" Or if the child didn't like a food, "How would you change it so you do like it?" She will really analyze and search for an answer. This type of child may not believe she can do a new physical activity or may not want to do it. Again, positive reinforcement and questions can help guide her.
Temperament Trait: Distractibility
This refers to how easily your child is drawn away from something he's involved in.
- Less distractible: You may find it easy to introduce a new food or activity, since kids with this temperament are likely to focus intently on new things. For a less distractible child, you may find they want to narrow their attention in on a single activity, like jumping rope.
- More distractible: To help easily distracted kids eat better, remove distractions, Welsch tells WebMD. Turn off the TV and radio, have everyone in the family eat at the same time, and don't overwhelm this type of child with too many choices. When it comes to being active, he may enjoy moving from one physical activity to another -- for example, from kickball to running, and then biking.
Temperament Trait: Sensitivity
This trait relates to how much your child responds to sensory stimulation like bright lights, loud sounds, and food textures. Does she tend to ignore them, or do they bother her?
- Less sensitive: Kids with this temperament probably won't be troubled by new foods, but they can be inclined to charge full steam ahead with activities, playing hard until they're worn out, for example. You may want to give your less-sensitive child a gentle reminder to take a break from activity now and then.
- More sensitive: This child may reject a new food if the texture is strange or it feels funny in her mouth. To get her to eat better, give her choices. For example, offer three new foods instead of one. If she doesn't like any of them, next time try three others. Some sensitive kids are bothered by little things like seams in their socks or tags in their shirts. They may not like to wear a special uniform or equipment for a sport. Again, if this sounds like your child, try to give her choices.
Changing Behavior Takes Time: Think Baby Steps
Working with your child to make healthy changes involves your temperament as well his. Sometimes your temperaments may clash, and you may need to adjust your parenting style. Things won't always be smooth and easy. Just remember it's not about making change in huge leaps. It's OK to take small steps instead, Rose-Kayser says.
Whether your goal is to get your kids to exercise more or eat better, celebrate little successes with specific words. "Thank you for trying those carrots I cooked tonight" will be a lot more powerful than a vague "good job."
Understanding and accepting your child's temperament can have rewards beyond today. "Just helping your child understand how they can cope with their temperament can help them throughout life," Rose-Kayser says.