Applying the ‘Love Languages’ to the Parent-Child Relationship

By Melissa Wright, MA, LPC, RPT, NCC, Adjusting to Change/Life Transitions Topic Expert Contributor

When counseling parents and their children, I often refer to the “love languages”—an idea coined by Dr. Gary Chapman, a relationship counselor most well known for the Love Languages series of books.

People express their love in a variety of ways, and what is important to one person may not be as much to another. If someone’s top languages are not being met, it can lead to negative feelings and behaviors.

The five love languages are as follows:

  1. Physical touch
  2. Words of affirmation
  3. Quality time
  4. Gift giving
  5. Acts of service

While you may have heard of the love languages, you may not have applied them to the parent-child relationship. It’s telling kids “I love you” in a language they respond to. Saying the words often isn’t enough. Parents often assume their kids know they are loved, but that’s not always the case.

Love should be unconditional, but is often displayed conditionally (such as when kids are good). Unconditional love can prevent problems such as resentment, feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, and insecurity. Children need to feel loved; if they don’t, they may seek approval elsewhere.

Now let’s talk about how to incorporate these into your daily lives:

1. Some ways to incorporate physical touch include hugging, kissing, child sitting on lap, cuddling during stories, television, or movies, tossing in the air, gentle touches on legs, arms, head, shoulders, etc., back scratches, high-fives and contact sports.

As kids get older, parents may touch only when necessary, like when helping with clothes or hair. Kids will crave more contact when sick, hurt, tired, or sad. Teenagers, especially boys, will pull back from physical touch. Make sure the touch is positive and at the right time and place. Don’t embarrass!

Conversely, a negative touch coming from a place of anger can be detrimental.

2. Words of affirmation are ways to give praise and encouragement for what the child does. Since a child’s behavior is something he or she controls, there is a direct effect.

Be genuine when giving praise. Praising too frequently may have little positive effect, as it can come across as insincere. This can set up an expectation for praise, and create anxiety when it is absent. The way you word praise and your voice tone and volume make a big difference. Words of guidance will be sought elsewhere—from school, TV, peers, or other adults—if not received from parents.

Although it may seem obvious, words of negativity really hurt, and the greatest enemy of encouragement is anger.

Make sure to say “I love you” on its own, not with qualifiers such as “but …” or “will you …” attached.

3. Spend quality timewith your child. Kids really seem to crave this, especially any one-on-one time. This love language is fairly self-explanatory. It can be going somewhere or just hanging out. Think of those moments when you’re sharing thoughts and feelings, having good, quality conversations. Mealtime, going for walks, story time, or bedtime can be good opportunities.

4. Giving gifts can be one that parents roll their eyes at. Of course kids like gifts! However, it is more about the thought behind it. In a child’s mind: “You were thinking of me and got it, since I’m important.” Other languages need to be combined with gift giving. It is not a paycheck or bribe, nor should it be a substitute for time spent. As with praise, excess gifts lose their meaning. You can tell gift giving is important if kids express excitement when receiving a gift or based on how it is presented, or display it proudly.

5. Acts of serviceis a big part of being a parent, as the list of tasks, errands, and to-do list items never seems to end. Acts of service refers to going above and beyond making sure kids’ needs are met. This could include offering to help with something before they ask, or at least not saying “in a minute” when they do. Encouraging a hobby, checking homework, hosting events for the kids at home, or doing things to make an illness more bearable are other examples.

To discover someone’s primary language, note the following:

  1. Observe how they express love to you.
  2. Observe how they express love to others.
  3. Listen to what they request most often.
  4. Notice what they complain about the most.
  5. Give them choices between two options.

You need to show love in all five ways, but try to discover the person’s primary language (or top two or three). When the person is under 5 years old, try to hit all five languages.

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