Listen to a broadcast about helping kids feel loved with Dr. Gary Chapman.
One of my clients was only 13 when he ran away from home. "My parents don't love me," he told me. "They love my brother, but they don't love me." I knew this boy's parents, and I knew they loved him, but obviously he felt disconnected.
Most parents love their children. However, many children don't feel loved. One possible reason is that parents aren't "speaking" their child's primary love language. Love can be expressed and received in five distinct ways or "languages," which include words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts or physical touch. If parents don't speak the right language, a child likely won't feel loved, even though the parents may speak the other love languages.
While a child's love language doesn't change, by the teen years the "dialect" of that love language may change. Here is how to figure out your child's love language or dialect at each stage of his or her development.
The first six years
Most parents are fully dedicated to meeting the physical needs of their young children. However, they may not think as much about the child's emotional needs. One of the needs that is essential to the child's well-being is the need to feel loved. The first six years are extremely important in meeting this emotional need.
In the early stages, parents should speak all five love languages.
Physical touch is the most natural language for parents. It is almost instinctive to hold and cuddle young children. All research indicates that children who receive tender touch at this stage of life will be much healthier emotionally than children who receive little touch.
Acts of service is a love language that you must speak in order for your child to survive. When your child is an infant, you feed, clean and change her. As she grows, you serve her by exposing her to things she can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. You do things for her that she cannot do for herself.
Quality time becomes important as a child ages. This is when reading stories, as he sits on your lap, becomes meaningful. Playing age-appropriate games communicates that you love him. The child has your undivided attention, and nothing is more important to him.
Gift giving is a concept that most kids begin to understand by age 4. When you wrap a present, it is even more exciting for your little one. This provides an opportunity to teach your child to express gratitude after receiving a gift.
Words of affirmation can encourage and inspire a young child. Praising her efforts at learning to walk gives her motivation to get up and try again. As your child begins her very first attempts at reading, your encouragement gives her the confidence to keep learning.
Studying your child
As you speak all five love languages to your child, observe how he relates to you. From his reaction, you can begin to notice his primary love language around the age of 4.
When my son was that age, he would run to the door and begin climbing up my leg the moment I came home. If I sat down, he was in my lap. His love language was physical touch. My daughter never did that. She would say, "Come into my room, Daddy. I want to show you something." Quality time was her primary love language.
The goal is to give your child heavy doses of his or her primary love language while continuing to include the other four. This teaches the child how to receive and give love in all five languages.
The school-age and preteen years
How parents bond with their children in the preadolescent years will greatly impact their emotional health and behavior during their teen years. When parents learn to speak a child's primary love language throughout grade school and middle school, they prepare their child for a smoother transition into adolescence.
Sometimes loving parents wonder why their child is not motivated to study more, or play sports, or sing or pursue a number of other activities. Their child may be spending too much time playing video games or reading comics, but the parent can't seem to pull the child into more meaningful activities.
When children feel deeply loved by parents, they are much more open to parental guidance. As parents discover the simple principle of speaking a child's love language, they see dramatic changes in their child's attitude and behavior. One mom told me, "We cannot believe the changes we are seeing in our 10-year-old son since we started speaking his primary love language."
Studying your child
Here are three ways to better discover a child's primary love language during the school-age and preteen years:
- Notice how your child relates to you. Typically, kids show love in the way they'd like to receive it. Does your child give you affirming words, for instance, or a number of gifts? How he treats you is evidence of his primary love language.
- Listen to what your child complains about the most. Her complaints can reveal her love language. "We don't ever spend any time together" reveals the love language of quality time. "I can't ever please you" indicates that she wants words of affirmation. If your child complains that she doesn't have something, her language might be gift giving, but consider how your child wants to use the item. Its use might reveal her love language. For example, if she complains that she wants a new outfit because she wants to shop with you, the language might be quality time and not gift giving; but if she wants it because she wants to look good in front of others, her language may be words of affirmation.
- Categorize the types of things your child requests the most. "Can we take a walk?" is a request for quality time. "How does this look?" or "how am I doing?" reveals his desire for words of affirmation.
If you think you know your child's love language, you can test your theory. Focus on one of the love languages each week for five weeks. On the week that you are speaking your child's primary love language, you will see a difference in his attitude and behavior.
Once you are confident in knowing your child's primary love language, speak it daily and watch his "love tank" begin to fill up. Meeting your child's emotional needs will reap huge dividends in your family. One mother told me, "It was amazing how our relationship improved when we started walking with our son and giving him individual attention."
The teen years
A mother told me, "I know my daughter's love language is quality time. As a child, she loved to play games with me, and we'd go shopping together. Now that she's a teen, she has no interest in doing those things with me. Did her love language change?"
Parents often ask that question about their teens. The answer is no. But how you communicate your children's love language might need to be tweaked. You may need to learn new "dialects" of your teen's love language.
Teens go through tremendous physical, emotional and intellectual changes. Even if you spoke her love language when she was younger, she may draw back from it when she becomes a teen, believing the ways you formerly expressed love seem childish now. Her primary language is likely the same as it has always been, but she may not "hear" or "speak" that language in the same ways that she used to. The dialect has changed.
Mom can hug her 10-year-old after his game, and he feels loved. But three or four years later, a hug may no longer feel comfortable for him. He still needs physical touch — but not necessarily in front of his teammates.
A teen's emotions fluctuate in response to what happens in life. A child who loves physical touch may receive a hug from Mom in the morning but may reject one in the afternoon. Why? Something happened at school that impacted him emotionally. A good rule of thumb with hugs is: If your teen stands close to you, he will likely receive your hug. If he stands across the room, probably not. Try to read his mood, and you will understand why your expressions of love may be accepted or rejected.
Studying your teen
If you don't know your teen's love language, ask: "On a scale of one to 10, how much love do you feel coming from me?" Then ask, "What could I do to bring up my score?" Or, if you are really brave, ask this question: "Would you give me one idea for how I can be a better parent?" The answer can give you a clue to your teen's love language.
Remember, teen brains are in the process of being rewired. He is developing a more logical thought process and will begin to question your ideas and opinions more often. He is more argumentative, which might frustrate and anger you, and when you're angry, you may be less inclined to express love. You may even be tempted to respond with negative or condemning words. But you must be careful not to allow your emotions to dictate your behavior. Instead, offer empathetic listening.
"I'm glad to see you thinking about this," you might say. "Please let me hear your thoughts." Empathetic listening fosters the teen's developing intellect. Learning to listen, instead of arguing, is the road to keeping your teen's love tank full.
You may find it difficult to speak your teen's changing love dialect. It's OK to start with baby steps. For instance, in the area of physical touch, begin with a light touch on the shoulder as you walk by, or offer a fist bump after a positive event. Then try a pat on the back. Small steps eventually can lead to big hugs.Dr. Gary Chapman is the best-selling author of The Five Love Languages of Teenagers and The Five Love Languages of Children.
What Are the Five Love Languages?
Some children need to be physically shown love through hugging, holding their hand or even squeezing their arm gently to show you care.
Acts of service
This form of showing children that they are loved comes from doing small things for them. Perhaps doing their chores or helping with a difficult task speaks their love language.
Some children feel loved when they are given a parent's undivided attention. They want to talk and be heard in one-on-one time, whether on a walk, sitting on the couch or going somewhere.
All children love gifts, but some feel especially loved when they are given gifts that show how someone thought about them. The value of the gift increases with the amount of thought that went into it.
Words of affirmation
Some children feel loved when a parent affirms them or builds them up with words.