Our research extends previous feeding studies by examining the role of child temperament and parent emotions as they relate to parents’ perceptions of the effectiveness of various feeding strategies and problems encountered when feeding their children. Our results show that parents’ positive emotions were associated with higher levels of perceived feeding strategy effectiveness and negatively related to parents’ perceived seriousness of problems in feeding their children fruit and vegetables. Parents’ negative emotions were directly related to the problems they perceived to have when feeding their children fruit and vegetables. Further, we observed that dimensions of child temperament, specifically Effortful Control and Surgency, were indirectly related to parents’ perceptions of feeding strategy effectiveness, and in the case of Effortful Control, also directly related to these perceptions. In addition, a third dimension of child temperament, Negative Affectivity, was directly related to parents’ negative emotions and directly and indirectly related to parents’ perceptions of more problems in feeding their children.
Our results emphasize the importance of both parent and child characteristics in feeding children, and are consistent with an ecological parenting framework [34
]. Both constitutionally based individual differences in children’s reactivity and self-regulation [36
], and parent emotions were linked to parent feeding strategies and problems in our sample. Our work extends the growing body of literature linking child temperament to child eating behaviors. A recent study showed that children (aged 3 to 8) with more emotional temperaments were reported by their mothers to display more food avoidant eating [37
]. Other studies have linked child temperament and mothers’ mental health to feeding in very young children [38
], but this is the first study that has focused specifically on positive and negative emotions in parents and tested it as a mediator of child temperament.
Our study also extends a growing body of research on the differential effects of positive and negative emotions on cognitive processes and task performance. Specifically, our findings regarding the link between positive parent emotions and their beliefs about feeding strategy effectiveness support previous research on the influence of positive emotions on expectancy motivation [39
]. Erez and Isen showed that positive emotions affected the three components of expectancy theory [39
], enhancing expectancy (effort and performance), instrumentality (performance and outcome), and valence (outcome is desirable). Our research extends this work by demonstrating the effects of positive emotions on performance expectancies within the parent–child feeding environment. Likewise, our observation of the negative relationship between positive parent emotions and problems in feeding children fruit and vegetables suggest that positive emotions may serve as a buffer when confronting challenges associated with parent–child feeding [40
]. Both child Effortful Control, a core aspect of self-regulation that serves to monitor and control thoughts and actions, and child Surgency, a dimension of child temperament that reflects positive anticipation, activity level, and sensation seeking, were directly associated with positive parent emotions. Having children who exhibit positivity, social skill, and playfulness, who may be more willing and able to control behavior, focus attention, follow parent requests, and, who are, in short, pleasant to be with, likely is an important source of positive emotion for parents. This source of positive emotions may serve to broaden parents’ ‘thought-action repertoires’ regarding what types of feeding strategies work for their children [41
In contrast to the assumed facilitative effects of positive emotions, the effects of negative emotions on parents’ perceptions of the feeding experience would appear to act as an impediment. There is extensive evidence that negative emotions, both acute and chronic, impede social functioning, cognitive processing, and goal-relevant behaviors in both adults and children [42
]. There also is evidence that children’s negative emotions are associated with mothers’ negative emotions as they relate to parent–child feeding interactions [44
]. Moreover, we found that negative emotions in parents and in children were associated with the seriousness of perceived feeding problems.
It is important to acknowledge several limitations to this work. First, the present study results are cross-sectional and require caution in regard to causal inferences. Although we present a theoretically plausible model, given that the constructs of interest have not been examined before in the same context, our structural equation model should be viewed as only descriptive and exploratory in nature – not as a confirmatory or causal analysis. This is particularly imporatant in considering that we were not able to assess the temporal ordering or omitted variable assumptions that are essential to reach conclusions regarding mediated causal ordering. It is concievable that there are potential confounding variables that, if included in the model, could result in a very different pattern of derived coefficients and conclusions [45
]. Furthermore, longitudinal and intervention studies would be helpful in clarifying the nature of the relationships among the constructs that were considered in our study.
Additionally, we measured parent expectations regarding feeding strategy effectiveness, not their actual use. Importantly, it would be informative to conduct studies to address how the child temperament and parent emotion dynamic affects the use of strategies, the nature of the problems encountered and in turn, children’s eating behaviors and weight status. Generalizability of the results may also be a concern, since the sample population was comprised of only low-income parents of preschool children.
In conclusion, our results support a model in which two motivational factors important to parent–child feeding (parent perceptions about feeding strategy effectiveness and problems involved in feeding children healthy foods) are directly linked to child temperament and parent emotions. Positive parent emotions mediated child temperament and were associated with lower levels of perceived problems in getting children to eat fruit and vegetables. Regardless of what children are like, positive parent emotions appear crucial to the development of healthy eating habits in children. Understanding the beneficial effects of positive emotions and incorporating them into intervention efforts may be essential to improving eating behaviors in children.
Therefore, future intervention efforts should consider approaches aimed at helping parents become more aware of their own emotions and how these may be influenced by their children’s temperament when assessing the effectiveness of various feeding strategies and the nature of problems encountered in the feeding domain. Future interventions also might focus on helping parents to be realistic in their appraisal of what is happening in the feeding domain. Parents would benefit from problem solving approaches to learn what works and what does not work, and what actually constitutes a problem that can interfere with the parent–child feeding process.