Understanding Your Child’s Love Language

Love Languages

“It’s not enough to love your kids. You have to know how to communicate love to a child so that he genuinely feels loved.” ~ Dr. Chapman

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of “Aha! Parenting,” clinical psychologist, and mother says, “The kids who thrive are the ones who feel loved, accepted and cherished for exactly who they are.” One of the most important things you can do for your child–if not the most important–is consistently show genuine love. I am a believer in Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. I have written about them at length in the context of adult relationships, but they also apply to the way children receive love from their parents and caregivers. Today, I want to put a new spin on it, though; I have never before talked about how to understand and apply the Love Languages with your littles. Though there are slight differences in the Love Languages between adults and children, the basics remain the same. Read on to know how to identify your child’s Love Language, as well as ideas for how to speak it, and pitfalls to avoid. 

TOUCH

“Mama, come snuggle me.”

If your child is constantly in your space, touching you, trying to sit on your lap, or playing with your hair, there’s your signal that he/she thrives on physical touch. Some children do not like hugging or snuggling; do not make the mistake of thinking all kids crave physical touch! While children in general enjoy being physically close to their parents, it is much more pronounced in children with this Love Language.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: Snuggle on the couch. Let your child sit on your lap. Offer foot massages. Give high fives. Hold hands. Make a secret handshake (one mother squeezes her daughter’s hand three times to nonverbally say, “I love you”). Wrestle or try other sports that require jostling. 

Warning: Spanking or hitting any child is damaging in any and all cases, but it is particularly so to those children whose primary Love Language is physical touch. Also, according to Dr. Markham, research has shown that dads grow increasingly less physically affectionate as their daughters develop; she suggests making a habit of good-morning and good-night hugs, so it is already in place as kids get older.

GIFTS

“Daddy, will you get me a toy?”

For those children whose Love Language is gifts, they see a present as a symbol of your love. They love when you give them things. Children with this love language tend to care about how a present is wrapped. They often remember who gave them what for months or years after the fact. They also may have trouble throwing out things they have been given, even if they hardly use them. Now, before you freak out thinking your child is materialistic or that you are going to go broke buying all the things, let me talk you off that cliff. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: You do not need to buy a million toys to let your child know you love him/her. A gift can be anything from a very smooth stone to a ball of yarn in her favorite color. You could leave an origami creation on your child’s chair or a wildflower on her pillow. One grown woman with this love language said, “Every year since I left for college, my mom has mailed me leaves from Wisconsin so I can enjoy a bit of fall from home while living in California.”  Stickers and star charts are also concrete ways of making these children feel valued, says Parents advisor Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Low-cost options, people.

Warning: Avoid accumulating meaningless things. Give gifts that bear some meaning or are special to your child for some reason. Also, try to give gifts that are age-appropriate (for example, give your three year-old something that will stimulate her brain and encourage her to develop creativity, etc). When you are on the receiving end, be sure to make a big deal of any gifts your child gives you by hanging artwork or creating a “precious things” table for those tender presents from your youngster.

WORDS

“Mama, listen to me!”

These are the kids who listen intently and speak sweetly. They beam whenever you praise them, always have something to tell you about, and live for your loving words in return. For these children, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. They know when you are distracted or halfhearted, and it deflates them to the core.

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: 

Leave little notes in their lunch box, send texts, or even give a bracelet with something like “my hero” printed on it. Generously praise your child and let them know you see the good in them. One mother, Auburn Daily, will get down on her toddler’s level, stare into her eyes, and say, “You are the best thing in my life. You are so important to me.” Dr. Karp suggests telling a stuffed animal or anyone who will listen about something your kid did well, since research shows we all believe more of what we overhear than what is told directly to us.

Warning:  Regardless of who you are, insults cut deep. Try not to make blanket statements about these children being “bad listeners,” “bad sharers,” or anything of the like. Also, Dr. Chapman says it is particularly important for these children to hear the words “I love you” standing alone, rather than, “I love you, but …” 

SERVICE

“Mama, can you put my shoes on?”

These children may beg you to tie their shoes for them, fix a broken toy, or fluff their pillow. They like having your help–even with things they are capable of doing on their own. While it may feel like servitude to you, it is the deepest expression of love to these children!

Here are some ideas to speak this love language: One mother reports that helping her daughter get dressed in the morning is one way of doing this. Another mother says her son exclaims, “Tank you, mama, das so nice of you!” anytime she serves him food. Basic things like that show your children you love them. You can also go above and beyond by doing things like warming their clothes in the dryer on a cold morning, helping them clean up their room, or getting a stain out of a favorite shirt. 

Warning: Parents of these kids often end up feeling like servants. Obviously you want to encourage self-reliance and obedience to household rules, so picking up after your child over time may prove to be a hindrance. As with all children, it is important to encourage self-reliance and expect them to do what they can for themselves at each stage of development. The best act of service you can provide is walking your child through a new process and teaching him, step-by-step, how to be more capable.

TIME

“Daddy, come read me a story!”

These children feel most valued when you choose to spend time with them. A child who often says, “Watch this!” or, “Play with me,” is begging for quality time. Dr. Chapman’s own daughter would say, “Daddy, come to my room! I want to show you something.” They spell love t-i-m-e. 

Here are some ideas to speak this love language:  For these kids, time can be spent together doing anything. Reading books, building a tower, wrestling, snuggling, watching a movie, baking, eating, swinging, etc. All they want is you….and your undivided attention. This does not mean that you need to scrap your to-do list in order to show your children your love; instead dedicate blocks of time to your child. Dr. Markham calls this “special time,” and says it can be short, but let your child choose the activity, and be fully present the whole time. 

Warning: If your child’s love language is quality time, banishing him or her away for time out in isolation is the severest of punishments. If you have done “special time” but your child still seems to be craving your attention, try having him/her play at your side while you read or work. 

Can you see the 5 Love Languages through the eyes of your child? As you pay attention to what your child asks for, you will pinpoint his/her love language. If you are still struggling to figure out what your child’s language is, take this quiz. And remember that love languages can morph and change over time. As you embark on this journey to understand and speak your child’s language, they will feel your love, and your connection with them will grow. As always, should you find that you need help, please do not hesitate to contact me!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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