Do You Speak Your Child’s Love Language?

During the month of February, we celebrate love in all its forms, and there is no time like the present to ask yourself if you are speaking your child’s love language. One of the greatest emotional needs for a child is for them to feel loved by their parent! 

Before we explore the “love languages”, based on the book The Five Love Languages for Children*, there are a few things to remember. 

First, it’s important that our expression of love be unconditional.  This means we don’t withhold a demonstration or expression of our love when they have a poor attitude, fail to meet our expectations, or don’t “perform”. Love should be intentionally affirmed especially when it’s difficult!

Second, even though your child probably has a preferred love language, it’s important to show your love through ALL the love languages, because all ARE important, as you will see.

Last, in the early infant and toddler years, it will be difficult to identify your child’s love language. Their preference typically emerges around or after their fifth birthday. In these formative years, try to speak each of the languages to your child equally.

Physical Touch

Does your child enjoy wrestling matches, tickles, holding hands, back rubs, hugs and kisses? Children begin life with a need to be held and cuddled (in fact, the long-term benefits and loving, respectful physical touch in infancy are supported by research), but this need is lifelong! It’s natural for us to sometimes get annoyed by children who cling to us, poke us, jump on top of us, or are just “in our space”, but when we see these occasions as a child seeking to connect with us through an expression of love that is meaningful to them, we can respond with patience and understanding.

Amidst adult responsibilities—work, chauffeuring children to and from after school activities, care of the home, maintaining physical and mental health—how do you make sure that your child receives your loving, respectful physical touch?

parenting a preschooler

For an infant, it could be as simple as snuggles during bottle feedings, cuddles at bedtime, tickles and nursery rhymes during diaper changes, etc.  The toddler may enjoy a piggyback ride to and from the car, a wrestling match on the living floor, dancing to music or singing action songs together, or snuggles with bedtime stories. Older children may enjoy high fives, friendly shoves, wrestling, playing games, or a clap on the back.  Snuggles during movies, family sports and games or a walk around the neighborhood can be enjoyed by most children.

There is one last important caveat for physical touch as a “love language” – it is loving, gentle and respectful.  It should never be forced on a child, and there should always be respect for a child’s physical boundaries.

Words of Affirmation

Words are powerful! How many of us can remember one harsh word spoken during our childhood? Negative, discouraging words can have a lifelong impact on us.  Conversely, what about a small word from a teacher, a parent or friend that we still remember to this day? Some children love and need to have words of affirmation spoken over them in order to feel truly loved.  These children are extremely sensitive to both praise and criticism, so it’s important for parents to be mindful of how they speak to their child.

In infancy, words of affirmation may not be understood, but infants do receive messages through our tone of voice and facial expressions. This extends into adulthood as well – words are always connected to our tone of voice and expression. The “right” words spoken with the “wrong” tone or “wrong” expression or “wrong” volume become meaningless, or worse, hurtful.  Volume/tone of voice important.

Additionally, words of affirmation should be genuine. If we constantly praise children for the ordinary things, they begin to understand that it is artificial. If we tell them, “What a fantastic job you did on that picture!” when it was not fantastic, they know. Instead, we can affirm the effort they put in, or the creativity they used.  We can also acknowledge their work, with words such as, “I see you used a lot of purple in the sky!” These types of comments are both genuine and affirming. To best affirm your child, it’s important that you spend time observing them. What are their interests? What do they do well? What do they enjoy? How do they take care of their belongings? How do they show care for their siblings or friends? When you take time observe, your affirmation can be specific.

Even though “love” is an abstract term and difficult for young children to understand, it’s important to still say the words, “I love you!” Get into the habit if saying it every morning and night.

Some other ways of affirming your child: put notes in their lunch box or on their bathroom mirror, play 20 questions, text or leave a voicemail for your child, speak well of them to others (and let them hear you doing it!), display their accomplishments (i.e. drawings, art projects, etc.) on your office desk and in your home.

Quality Time

When a parent gives a child their undivided, focused attention, it tells the child that they are important and loved. It tells them that they are enjoyable to be around: we like being with them!

During infancy, children get a lot of attention due to the nature of their developmental needs, but as they grow up, it is often easier to give a quicky physical touch, a gift, or a brief word of affirmation than invest time into our child. Cultivate the habit of giving your child undivided attention, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day.  During these time, turn off the TV, put down the phone, and show interest in and enjoyment of your child!  Make frequent, curious and respectful eye contact with your child. (Don’t reserve eye contact for moments of misbehavior!)

During infancy, get down on the floor and interact with your baby; during the toddler years, dig in the sandbox with them; during the preschool years, kick a ball back and forth. Some other ways to integrate quality time with your child are to have regular family meals together, parent/child overnight trips, parent/child “dates”, running errands together, doing chores together, doing something together (art, cooking, woodwork, gardening), playing on the playground with them, taking a family walk, bedtime rituals, or even homework help! These moments may seem insignificant, but they are actually meaningful connections that build your relationship and trust.

As with all other love languages, it’s important that we don’t withhold this language when a child misbehaves. Spend time with your child when they are doing well; if they have a meltdown, snuggle with them on the couch and sing a song or read a story. 

young preschoolers with teacher

Gifts

Some children best receive love through gift giving. However, it’s also important to offer this language in combination with the other expressions of love listed here. Gifts never take the place of loving affirmations, quality time, acts of service and physical touch. It’s also important that we be careful not to be excessive in gift giving, which may make your child “expect” or “demand” gifts. It can also cause parents to feel “guilty” if they can’t afford to buy their child a gift. Gifts do not have to cost money – they can cost thought and time! On your way home from work, pick up your child’s favorite treat. Make your child’s favorite meal. Send your child a postcard on a business trip, share an after school snack together, give gifts personalized with you child’s name, put a small surprise gift in your child’s lunch box, make a scavenger or treasure hunt, give “experience” gifts such as a trip to the zoo or a museum.  Consider giving your child a special drawer or box to keep their treasures in!

It’s important to understand that children who speak this language are often very particular about their belongings and gifts. If something is broken or mishandled or lost, it can be very upsetting to them. Knowing “why” these things matter so much to them can help us be more empathetic and patient.

Gifts

Acts of service are the things we “do” for our children, and if we’re honest, these can be very physically and emotionally demanding! To give our children our best, we need to be at our best, which means we need to care for our own emotional and physical needs.

preschool mom with child

If you have a child who constantly asks you for help, it may be that they are reaching out for connection and love. Instead of being annoyed, find ways to intentionally serve them throughout the day so that they’re not demanding for it at other, perhaps more inconvenient, times.

When your child asks for help, it does not mean we must do it, but knowing that this is a way of communicating love, at minimum we should consider their request and respond with respect, whether it is to the affirmative or negative.

Doing things for our children does not mean giving them everything they want; there is a balance between serving our children and doing what is best for their emotional, social and physical development.  Cleaning your two year old’s breakfast dishes is not the same as doing it for a twelve year old, after all! We want to demonstrate and teach our children who to serve themselves and others.

It’s important how we do things for our children: they should be done with love, not resentment. Children know when we are resentful.

What kinds of things communicate love to our child? Helping them with homework or improving their skills needed for their involvement in an extracurricular activity, making them their favorite meal or a special breakfast, setting out their favorite activity for when they come home, organizing their toys in a way they like – all of these are ways to show them your love. In addition, we can involve our children in serving others in our neighborhood and community to show the importance of not just receiving from others, but giving back.

 

Love is a feeling, but it is also an action. What is your child’s love language? How can you be intentional in “speaking” it to your child? How does knowing your child’s love language help you respond with patience and empathy to negative behaviors? Which love language is the hardest for you to express and what is a step you can take today to “practice” expressing it?

 

*Based on the 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman, Ph.D and Ross Campbell, M.D.

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