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Are You Speaking Your Child’s Love Language?

identify the way your kids want to be loved to strengthen your relationship

“Mama, my love language is receiving gifts!” squeals my 10-year-old daughter Teagan, as she holds her results out to me. “But I bet you already knew that. Because of how much I ask for Squishies when we go to Target, right, Mama?” 

“Mine’s quality time. I’d say that’s pretty obvious,” says her twin brother Brylon matter-of-factly. “That must be why I always want to have a Mama & Bubba Day.” 

The scores they tallied come from a quiz in the book The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman, Ph.D., and Dr. Ross Campbell—a follow-up to Chapman’s wildly successful The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, designed for couples. Most people have at least heard of “love languages,” the five distinct ways that humans are said to give and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and receiving gifts.

While Chapman and Campbell recommend giving your children a healthy dose of each of language, they suggest that there is typically one area, maybe two, that children respond to on a deeper level than others—and that focusing on those areas enables you to adequately fill their emotional cup. 

Identify the love your child needs

We know we love our children, but do they know? And does it really matter how we love them? A 2019 study in the International Journal of Learning and Development showed that children who felt loved responded better to parental discipline. The research also states that children who received affection, closeness and physical interaction with their loved ones experienced better social and emotional development. In other words, by effectively ensuring that your children experience your love, you are molding them into kids who will grow into well-rounded adults.  

There are five languages, and identifying and practicing effective love for your children—that is, forms of love that speak to their personal needs and desires—come down to five intertwined factors. 

Be simple

Too often, we feel compelled to give our kids things to show them how much we love them. After all, what kid doesn’t love presents? You might assume receiving gifts would be the near-universal love language for children. On the contrary, attempting to make every bonding moment seem like Christmas morning can desensitize them from truly appreciating the gesture. Receiving a gift is no longer an act of love; it’s an expectation.  

“Small, simple acts go a long way,” says Fort Worth mom of four Katie Crum, who notes that it’s the free things that her kids seem to respond to best, something like braiding her physical-touch daughter’s hair. “It always comes back to how they need their cup filled, and sometimes that’s just having Mom present for them, right at that moment.” 

It’s especially easy to make the “receiving gifts” mistake with kids who aren’t really communicating verbally. However, early childhood specialist Kristin Castillo, program director for Elite Learning in Fort Worth, says that up through age 3, your child’s love language is almost always physical touch.

“Just like we are constantly growing and changing [physically and cognitively], so is the way we display and experience love.” 

She notes that babies are born behaving out of instinct, and they crave the feeling of warmth, comfort and being held that they experienced in the womb. By age 4, a child’s preferences typically begin to develop, and this may cause their initial, instinctual love language to change.  

“We grow and develop both cognitively and emotionally at a rapid rate from birth to age 9,” explains Sarah Balint-Bravo, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and registered play therapist supervisor who owns Park Cities Child & Family Counseling in Dallas. “Just like we are constantly growing and changing [physically and cognitively], so is the way we display and experience love.” 

So as important as it is to know which love language to use with your child, it’s equally important to remember that the ideal language may change. And regardless of which language your child currently “speaks,” the gestures don’t have to be excessive. “All three of my kids love ending their day with words of affirmation,” says Laura Alotaibi, an Allen mother with 10-year-old triplets.

“You wouldn’t believe the way their eyes light up, and it was just something so simple. Whispering ‘I love how helpful you were to the neighbors today; I’m so proud of what a kind boy you are,’ takes 20 seconds, but it means the world to him.”

Alotaibi also saw this principle at work when she was an elementary school teacher. “We were trained to catch kids doing good and praise them for it, versus only correcting behavior. We were told to use words of affirmation as an effective way to connect with the kids, and it really works.”  

My children are equally enthralled with small acts on my part. To meet the needs of my 11-year-old stepson, I praise him for helping me with the baby or tell him how proud I am for how great he’s doing in social studies. However, that wouldn’t satisfy the needs of my 10-year-old son, whose language is quality time. Instead, I play video games with him, or even just watch him play and ask questions.

My 10-year-old daughter, who prefers receiving gifts, glows when I hand her a flower I picked while taking the dog out, or if I let her swipe a lick of brownie batter while no one is looking. And my 1-year-old visibly thrives off of me rubbing his hair and holding his hands. These acts take mere seconds to accomplish yet leave lasting impact. 

“The baseline answer” for how to show our children love in a simplistic way, says Castillo, “is to be intentional. If you have one hour between school and practice, use that hour to do something with your child that you both enjoy. Sometimes it’s just staying off your phone. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy.”  

Be specific

It is imperative to study your children’s unique personalities to figure out their unique love languages. What one child may perceive as an act of love—say, going shopping and picking out that week’s groceries together (quality time)—another may view as a boring errand. Your child may need to hold your hand while inside the store (physical touch) to feel any kind of connection during the task.  

To figure out how each of her children craved affection, Crum says she paid conscious attention to what they wanted from her. “Ruby, who speaks quality time, would ask to plan mommy-daughter dates with just the two of us, while Reese—who needs words of affirmation—has always loved being praised,” Crum shares. “She would tell us at a really young age that we should tell her we loved her more, or that she likes when we acknowledge how hard she’d worked on something.”   

Crum observed that her 6-year-old J.Y., who has autism, always felt love in the form of receiving gifts. “Every day since the day he could speak, he says to anyone who walks in, ‘Hi! What’dya bring me?’ Ownership is very important to autistic kids, but even without that, he’s a collector at heart,” remarks Crum, adding that J.Y. keeps items like coins or nuts that have been gifted to him in a special box. “It doesn’t have to be anything big, just a token that tells him, You were thinking of me. That’s what ‘I love you’ sounds like to him.” 

Stay attentive to the way your children interact with and respond to you. This will play out differently with each child, and Crum says that studying those differences will work to your benefit when striving to meet the specific need of a specific child. “As soon as you start paying attention and looking and listening for the signs your children are sending you, you just know.” 

Be sustainable

Whether you have an only child or four (or more), moms are busy—so you may feel you don’t have the bandwidth to devote specific, distinct daily time to this. No matter how packed your schedule, though, intentional love can fit in. “You can accomplish your daily chores and responsibilities and still give your children that designated time that they need,” Balint-Bravo says. “Walking the dog, pulling weeds, cooking together—all those are opportunities to insert any of the love languages and still make sure you’re staying on schedule.” By combining tasks, you reduce the risk of feeling burned out later in the day, and your child still feels as if they had their special moment with you.  

Additionally, the last thing you want is for intentional togetherness to feel like a burden or just another thing to check off. According to Castillo, when a particular activity doesn’t mesh with you or your schedule, don’t do it. “If doing a certain activity with your children to demonstrate your love feels draining or exhausting, it isn’t realistically sustainable and you should avoid that activity,” she says. Castillo goes on to suggest keeping a list (perhaps on your phone) of things you feel you can do consistently, and then making it a daily habit to choose at least one. 

Of course, if you do have more than one kiddo, you’ll be juggling. So moms of multiple kids, this one’s for you: Don’t feel guilty if it takes time and practice to figure out how to speak love to more than one child. Allison Mears, a Dallas mom of two, has found it helpful to not only designate individual time with her children, but to also find ways to show both her children love simultaneously.

Mears shares that her 2-year-old feels loved through quality time. “I quickly discovered that it was simply my presence, just me being in the same room,” she says. “I can be playing with him and filling his cup by just being there and talking to him, and while I’m doing this, I’m keeping my daughter in my lap and filling hers as well.” In this way, Mears is present for her son and showing him love through his preferred language, while also satisfying her 10-month-old daughter’s need for physical touch. 

I ask my kids the same question after school, even if that’s all the one-on-one interaction I can manage that day. We call it the sad-mad-glad game. I ask them each for a thing that made them sad, a thing that made them mad, and something that made them glad. This gives me a glimpse into their day while also giving each some quality time. It’s something small and sustainable that I am able to practice even on our busiest nights. 

Whatever you choose, the important thing is to make the time to do it. “If you don’t, you’ll see the effects,” stresses Castillo, “and your children will probably see them when they start forming relationships of their own, and then the cycle [of disconnect] will continue.”  

Be self-aware

This is especially true if your own love language is receiving gifts. Toys, electronics and experiences like museum memberships can get very costly, very quickly. “Often we condition our kids to feel loved by buying them a new toy, but that’s because it’s our own love language,” says Balint-Bravo. If your child’s love language isn’t receiving gifts, you can take your child on a full-on shopping spree and they could still end up feeling like they never really connected with you.  

Similarly, if your own love language is quality time and your child’s is words of affirmation, make sure you are including encouraging words during your time together. “You can spend the entire day running errands and sharing conversation, but did you shower your words-of-affirmation-child with praise and compliments?” Balint-Bravo asks. “Just because giving quality time is how you feel comfortable showing love, doesn’t mean that it’s what makes your child feel loved … If that’s not your child’s love language, then you’re totally missing the mark.” 

Balint-Bravo points to a situation she encountered with a child. The child’s love language was physical touch, but that made the parent (whose love language was words of affirmation) uncomfortable. “[The mom] had to find things she could do within her own comfort zone that could convey love to her son. Kids pick up on if you’re uncomfortable,” says Balint-Bravo. “You can’t stiffen up when your child hugs you or wants you to hold them, because to them, that’s you saying that you don’t love them back.”  

Parents must be self-aware enough to identify personal weaknesses or challenges to address in order to fulfill a child’s needs. The mother in Balint-Bravo’s example settled on massaging her son’s hand. It was a gesture that she was comfortable doing, and one that met her son’s craving for physical touch. 

Whatever your child’s language, keep in mind that they don’t necessarily grow out of their appreciation for certain acts of love. My twins started fifth grade this year at a new school, and as I was packing their lunch for their first day, I decided to leave out my usual lunchbox love note.

Attending a new school is a difficult enough transition, and I figured that since they were the big dogs on campus, a napkin note signed “Love, Mommy” might be embarrassing at a time when it was so important for them to feel like they fit in. When they got home from school, I asked how their day was. All good for my son, but my daughter exhaled slowly and replied, “It was OK.”

I asked if something had happened that was bothering her, and after some hesitation, she answered, “It’s just that… I don’t want to embarrass you, but… I think you forgot to include my note in my lunch today.” Embarrassed is right! Had I familiarized myself with her love language sooner, I would have known that of course my daughter needed that gift in her lunchbox to feel loved throughout her day. (And you can bet that every packed lunch gets a note from now until graduation!)  

Be proactive

Identifying love languages isn’t always so obvious. Castillo says that while it’s unfortunate that so many feel lost or confused on how to connect with their children, it’s not necessarily a parent’s fault. “Today’s society doesn’t put a big enough emphasis on establishing that foundation,” she posits. “If it did, so many parents would know how easy it is to show your children you love them using instinct and intention.” 

If you’re among the parents who need help discovering a child’s love language, there are free, online tests (listed at XX – direction for layout) that reveal the love language toward which your child gravitates. Even if you think you know what works best for your child, it’s worth checking out a quiz to be sure. “Knowing [your kids’] love languages is not just about saying ‘I love you.’ It helps you positively affect and influence your children,” says Alotaibi. “I think it helps you become a better parent. I know it did for me.” 


LOVE NOTES

There are online, literary and in-person resources that can help you identify your child’s love language and use it to deepen your bond. 

Online Quizzes

  • Author Gary Chapman’s website, 5 Love Languages, provides a test you can take for your child. The quiz is geared to age 9 and up; for younger kids, the site will provide a drawing exercise as well as literary resources for parents and kids. The website’s page for The 5 Love Languages of Children also offers a love languages “mystery game” that kids can do on their own.
    Quiz: 5lovelanguages.com/quizzes/love-language
    Mystery game: 5lovelanguages.com/store/the-5-love-languages-of-children
  • Scary Mommy offers another quiz with questions (which the site notes you might want to customize to a child’s interests) that you can ask your kids. The quiz suggests that you can start homing in on specific love needs with a child in elementary school, and truly rely on a love language quiz when your kiddo is around age 9. Scary Mommy love language quiz for kids; scarymommy.com/love-language-kids-quiz

Books

  • The 5 Love Languages of Children, by Gary Chapman, Ph.D., and Dr. Ross Campbell, is designed to help you identify your child’s language and use it in a variety of ways, including more effective discipline and methods of learning. 
  • Campbell, the co-author of the children’s love languages book, also wrote How To Really Love Your Child. This book explains children’s emotional needs and imparts skills and techniques to help your child feel fully loved and accepted. 
  • Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents contains passages from the writings of Janusz Korczak, a 19th-century educator and child advocate. Korczak believed that understanding children is the key to taking care of them. 

Classes

  • If you’re struggling to connect with your child and their love language really does feel foreign to you, local support is available. The Parenting Center in Fort Worth offers classes for the whole family, with the goal “to help you better navigate your familial and parent-child relationship(s)” through provided parent coaching and education. Fort Worth, 817/332-6348; theparentingcenter.org 
  • Positive Influences in Dallas offers a single-day Intensive Parenting Class that condenses 7–8 weeks of curriculum into one 8-hour session, where highly skilled instructors tailor the program to your specific needs to provide practical and useful tips.
    Dallas, 469-227-7847;
    positiveinfluences.org. 
  • For a faith-based option, check out the parenting classes at 316 Counseling Center in Collin County. There’s also parent counseling and play therapy.
    Allen, 469/631-0369; 316counselingcenter.org. 

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