Written by Benson Ansell, Family First Therapist

Love is a powerful thing. Strong attachment and supportive relationships are primary influences  in developing resilience and provide a protective factor for children. There’s research that shows this; data has shown warmth and responsiveness to be a good indicator of love and have investigated the long-term effects of warm and responsive parenting on children. Hill, Stafford, Seaman, Ross, and Daniel (2007) reviewed several works showing that warm and responsive parenting develops intrinsic resilient capacities and mediates coping responses to many adversities including poverty, poor health, substance abuse, youth crime, bereavement, or community violence. Love and attachment is more than just feel-good, it influences how we develop, who we become as adults and how we express and receive love. This is a huge topic - there are so many books written about love, development, and attachment. Today, though, we’re going to talk about the concept of love languages and the ways this can apply to caregiver-child relationships.

Love languages, an idea coined by Dr. Gary Chapman, poses that people express their love in different ways and the way we experience love is different from one person to the other. If one person feels love in a way they are not experiencing, they can feel disconnected or not loved, even if the other is giving love in the ways they know how! It’s almost like you are speaking different languages.
The five love languages are:

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

Generally, people talk about love languages in reference to adult relationships. They are a great tool in relational work! That said, they can also be a great resource for caregivers when learning how to connect and show love to their children. Children need to feel loved. It’s a foundational human need - and love should be unconditional! However, it’s often displayed conditionally (praise when kids are good, positive feedback and interaction primarily when things are going well). Knowing your own love language and trying to understand your child’s unique ways of feeling and showing love can help to enhance your bond over time whether your child is 2 or 22.

How can you identify a child or adolescent’s love language? First, pay attention to them. Write down or notice:

  1. How they express love to you. Is it hugs? By saying I love you? Drawing presents? Doing chores?
  2. How they express love to others. How do they act with their best friend? What do they want to do for someone’s birthday?
  3. What they ask for most often. Do they want to snuggle when you get home? Do they want presents at the toy store? Do they want you to tell them you love them over and over?
  4. Notice what they complain about the most. What frustrates them? Do they get upset when someone does something in particular?
  5. Give them choices between two options and see what they prefer!
    It’s important to show love in all five ways, but understanding your child or loved one’s primary love languages can help you think about different ways to express your love.

For older children, you can take quizzes online! There’s a quiz on 5lovelanguages.com for ages 9-12 and for teenagers as well. While you’re at it, make sure to assess your own love language! This is helpful in building strong partnerships, modeling different ways of showing affection and commitment, and model the important lesson that love differs and caring for relationships takes fulfilling work and effort.

So, once you know your love languages, here are some ways to incorporate different expressions into your daily life:

  • Physical touch: hugging, kissing, snuggling with your child, cuddling during stories, playing with their hair, drawing letters or stories on their back, back scratches, high fives, back pats, braiding or brushing hair.As children get older, it’s normal for physical touch to shift and change in frequency. It’s normal for older children and adolescents to want to experience more touch when feeling sad, sick, or tired. It’s important to follow the cues of your kids and adapt and grow with them! A big kiss on the lips outside of middle school is probably not going to make anyone feel super happy.
  • Words of affirmation: tell them all the positive ways you feel! Say I love you, share a list of the reasons you love them, tell them directly about the things they’re doing that make you happy or proud. Write a note for a special occasion. Tell them directly about how impressed you are by how hard they are working! Words of affirmation are a great way to encourage positive behavior. We love to see parents genuinely praising positive action. It creates a great feedback loop! Remember to be genuine and authentic. Children can pick up when things aren’t feeling “real."
  • Quality time: If you’re a caregiver, then you know kids LOVE quality 1:1 time. If you have multiple children at home, this is even more precious and important. Take your child somewhere special, even if it’s the park - and put your phone down! Being present is important for quality time. Read a book together, tackle a project, break out an art project. The important thing for quality time is to do whatever activity together and with as much full engagement as you can muster. Eat dinner and ask good questions, take a walk together, create a bedtime routine. All of these are important and show your child you love them!
  • Gift giving: This one can feel a little strange or obvious - all kids like toys and gifts, right? But for those who have gift giving as a top love language, it goes beyond the excitement of a new stuffed animal. The thought behind the gift is important and shows a lot of love. Surprise your child with a small trinket after you traveled for a trip! Make a piece of artwork and frame it and put it on the wall. Choose a night when your child can pick out dinner or appetizer. Give them $5 to buy something small at the store. It’s important not to throw items and purchases at children (or adult partners!) As a solution to emotional distress, but it can be a wonderful way to show you care for those who feel loved by these types of action.
  • Acts of service: You are ALWAYS doing things for your kids, so this might feel exhausting and hard to take on. However, think of acts of service as the unexpected act that goes beyond the “basics”. Maybe you check homework, surprise them by finishing a chore and having a fun adventure afternoon, prepare their favorite meal, plan an activity just for them, something as simple as buying their favorite flavor or seltzer can be a wonderful act of service!

There are so many different ways to show your love, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will give you some inspiration for where to start or things to try in addition to all the things you re already doing. Remember, love languages are simply a tool to add to your parenting toolbox. It’s not something to stress yourself out about or cause any self criticism - you are a wonderful caregiver doing amazing things for your child. The more resources we have, the more we can use no matter what we’re facing, and that’s a great thing.

About the author: Benson Ansell is a Family First therapist and has been with Child Guidance since 2017. He loves helping families relate in new, fun and positive ways and helping teenagers, in particular, feel heard and understood. When not working, he can be found playing basketball.