We all want to make sure our kids grow up feeling loved–it’s one of the precious hallmarks of parenting. We do our very best to love the fullest we can, and yet like with any personal journey that matters to us, there’s always room to grow. And if we hope to raise children who trust love, feel holistically loved, and grow up to love fully and perceptively, decoding your child’s love language can be a rewarding path to explore.
If you’ve never encountered the love languages before, they’re an approach to considering love based on how people tend to express and receive it. Developed by relationship counselor Gary Chapman, Ph.D., in his book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, we learn that while people can have very different ways of giving and receiving what they consider to be “love,” we can become aware of appreciating it as love all the same. The original five love languages include:
- Quality time
- Physical touch
- Words of affirmation
- Receiving gifts
- Acts of service
As well as two newly added languages:
- Shared experiences
- Emotional security
While we’ll get into each language below, what’s at the heart of their value for parents is shedding light on how we can make special considerations with them when it comes to our children. How do we interpret our own child’s love language? How do we infuse their preferred love language into their life in meaningful ways? Read on to learn about the love languages of children and how to decode your child’s.
Decode Your Child’s Love Language
We spoke with Dr. Suzanne Barchers, Ed.D., who is a thought leader on children’s behaviors. She has fulfilled a range of roles tied to childhood education and has a wealth of thoughtful advice when it comes to honing in on love languages at an early age. She pointed out that “as parents, we can become more sensitized to what is an act of love, and how it’s expressed by a child. And when we get that into our heads, we understand that we can respond.” So, by recognizing that love means different things to different children, you can start to dial in on the many ways love “looks,” with each of the love languages offering helpful distinctions.
“A parent has to be really sensitive to the reactions of their kids, and let that guide them,” Dr. Barchers advised, noting that if you can “realize where a child focuses their attention, you can play to that, and also ignore your own preferences.” For example, she suggested spending time observing your child during a family night, such as when you get together to play a game or watch something.
- Do they crave physical closeness?
- Do they help with getting everything set up?
- Are they simply delighting in the fact that you’re spending time together?
She also recommended making love language reflections during a commute or a movie you’re watching with your little one for the umpteenth time. Or, you can jot down quick notes any time you’re able to mindfully observe the way your child is giving or receiving love, and see if there are patterns that clarify their primary love language. And for the uber-organized, perhaps you even set yourself up with a love language calendar, journal, or notes page on your phone!
Once you spend time calling the love languages to the front of your mind, chances are it will start to become like a reflex to pick up on your child’s preferences. You can also take the official free online love language quiz on behalf of your child as a starting point and see if you can answer questions like: Would your child rather hear, ‘I have a special surprise for you’ or ‘I’m going to give you a big hug’?
As Dr. Barchers put it, “Don’t overthink it. It becomes intuitive and you adjust [as you go].” Speaking of preferences, what if your child seems to favor more than one love language? Most people do. All of the love languages usually come into play in one way or another as we engage with our loved ones. Still, there tends to be a slanted inclination towards particular types. As you reflect and fine-tune around what your child’s love language(s) might be, you can enjoy the fun and satisfaction of bringing them to life!
Parenting Tips Based On Your Child’s Love Language
Get familiar with what makes each love language unique, so you can begin to map the behaviors your child expresses, what actions they tend to initiate, and how they respond when you engage with them by trying each of the seven types. Here are a few clues to look for to identify your child’s love language with tips for each one.
1. Quality time
Does your little one relish in time spent with their loved ones–having their focused attention, doing activities together, having thoughtful conversations, etc.? Ultimately, quality time is about feeling someone is fully present with you, leaving you feeling seen, heard, and cared about.
For parenting, this translates to making your child the center of your undivided attention and spending time together in ways you know they enjoy. While you probably already devote dedicated time to your child, think of this as a way to get outside the box of your usual connectivity time:
- Surprise your child while they’re playing by themselves and ask if you can join in.
- Invite your child to run errands with you (and make a pit stop at one of their favorite stores if they semi-enjoy errands!)
- Play your child’s favorite game together
- Extend your child’s bedtime routine (if you read, read a little more; watch a short program; tell stories; 0r ask them engaging questions)
- Help your child with schoolwork that they otherwise wouldn’t need your help on (or if they insist they don’t need your help, spend time with them while they’re working on it and have them teach you what they’re learning)
2. Physical touch
Physical touch means your child feels especially loved and connected through physical affection. Whether it’s cuddling, hugs, kisses, holding hands, sitting in your lap, and so on, affectionate gestures like these are a key source of emotional bonding and building a sense of trust for children who are drawn to this love language. Of course, not every child receives being touched in the same way—and we also put effort into helping them learn a sense of body safety. Since you know your child best, you’ll be able to decide what feels natural and comfortable! Try:
- Snuggling up with your child during a movie or TV show you’re watching together
- Creating a special handshake together
- Offering your child a spa or salon session (massage, manicure, hairstyling, etc.)
- Making a point to add hugs to encounters where you haven’t thought to give them in the past
- Having a dance party with moments that involve partnered movements
3. Words of affirmation
Children who constantly light up when you share encouraging sentiments with them have words of affirmation as a preferred love language. They feel loved when you give them compliments, praises, and positive and loving expressions, which can all communicate what you uniquely adore about them. With your child, this would be any time you make a conscious effort to applaud something specific about who they are or what they’ve done. While stating simple phrases like “I love you,” “Great job!” and “I’m so proud of you,” can do the trick sometimes, these are affirmation ideas to expand upon them:
- Express how proud you are of specific achievements your child accomplishes–including taken-for-granted ones (or if it feels trite, give attention to a specific detail of the achievement that they slayed)
- Acknowledge what you admire about the way your child handled a situation
- Create a gratitude wall and put sticky notes up every so often with the things you’re grateful for about your child
- Compliment your child for the ideas they generate and tell them why you think so
- Paint small cards or rocks together with phrases that capture your child’s spirit
4. Receiving gifts
This language affirms children who love gifts that radiate with thoughtfulness and intentionality. While many kids rejoice at the possibility of receiving as many presents as they can get, what specifies this language is that it’s less about the gift itself and more about the consideration you’ve made in selecting and presenting it. For example, if you know your kiddo is obsessed with a certain movie or TV character, you would spontaneously gift them a little something you found while running errands that features this character. Overall, fulfilling this language by no means has to be expensive! It’s the sentimentality that counts:
- Make your child a personalized playlist of songs that make you think of them
- Pick up a surprise treat your child has had their eye on at the grocery store
- Give your child something special of yours (if you’re okay parting with it!)
- Find a personalized item with your child’s name on it (like a mug, keychain, or bracelet)
- Sneak a small surprise under your child’s pillow or in their lunchbox (a toy, handwritten note or drawing, or a memento)
5. Acts of service
Acts of service are any generous gestures you make to be helpful to somebody else. They are the ways you go out of your way to be considerate, and the receiver experiences love through your having offered these gestures for their benefit. So much of parenting is daily acts of service—from cooking meals to helping with homework to cleaning up—making parenting one seemingly great big generous act of service in and of itself! But, if you’re looking to go above and beyond every so often in the name of this love language, you can try:
- Making your child’s favorite meal for dinner
- Preparing your child a special bubble bath
- Helping your child learn a new skill or practice one they’re already working on
- Presenting your child with the question, “How can I help you?”
One of the two new love languages, shared experiences is about feeling loved when you are able to grow together with someone through a designated experience. As a parent, arranging a new activity that you and your child could both participate in together can satisfy this love language. In contrast to quality time, which is the time you dedicate to someone else, shared experiences are deliberately engaging in something together that will nourish the relationship. Find anything that will leave you and your child with a shared sense that you have explored and bonded over something unique together, such as:
- Creating a project together (arts and crafts, science, technology-based, etc.)
- Cooking a recipe you’ve never tried together
- Visiting a museum, nature area, sporting event, or taking a weekend getaway
- Taking a new class together (e.g. yoga, music, sports, dance, or jiu-jitsu)
- Discovering a YouTube or TikTok video that you can emulate together (dances, experiments, food creations, etc.)
7. Emotional security
As the other new love language, emotional security captures sharing love through deeper conversations and validation. When you have the chance to express yourself authentically, and have it lovingly received plus consciously attended to by whomever you’re sharing it with, this acceptance conveys love. While it depends on the age of your child, any time you dig a little deeper into what they’re thinking and feeling, how they’re doing, or why certain things are important to them, you’re activating emotional security. It can be challenging to stimulate deeper conversations with children, but your patient initiative and listening can inspire wonderful insights for them (and you!). Starting points could be:
- Teach your child how to trust their intuition
- Ask your child to describe the details of their favorite friendships
- Purchase a question deck like this one to discuss together
- Ask questions that prompt your child to think about and express how they’re feeling about different aspects of their life (school, relationships, activities, or free time)
Strengthening Bonds Using the Love Languages
Interested in pursuing even more knowledge about how love languages benefit a child’s development? Gary Chapman, Ph.D. has created an illuminating follow-up book, The Five Love Languages of Children, on this very topic.
What’s more, besides engaging with the love languages yourself, there are other ways you can be thoughtful about integrating them into your child’s life. You can deepen your bond together by:
Teaching your child about the love languages
For example, when they seem ready to grasp the concept—even on a basic level—you can start having conversations about how love has different languages, just like the other languages we speak. Moreover, you can help your child learn to deliberately express each type—including your favorite!
Dr. Barchers celebrated children for their extraordinary flexibility. She indicated that because they care so much about pleasing their parents (excluding any natural stages of rebellion), they can learn how to accommodate the love languages of others, even if it’s not what they organically gravitate to. The love languages don’t have to be a one-way street from you to your child! By helping your child thrive across all the ways they can show love, you’re setting them up to love creatively and unflinchingly in their present and future relationships.
Not taking anything personally
You may notice your child is quite turned off in response to certain acts of love. The refused gift or hug, the disinterest in playing a new game with you. This can feel emotionally upsetting, and it’s important not to take it personally. Rather, use it as an opportunity to appreciate the love that does animate your child. Dr. Barchers highlighted that your own preferred love languages may be at the root of hurt feelings, and it can be helpful to dialogue with your partner or another parent about it. By sharing what has played out with your child with someone who knows you, hopefully, you shed light on a new harmony around your and your child’s needs for love.
Recognizing the love languages evolve
When asked what her best piece of advice would be for parents who are making the effort to be mindful of their child’s love languages in their household, Dr. Barchers wrapped it up in a single phrase: “Do resets.” Use natural life events like the start of a new school year, holidays, birthdays, and the like as opportunities to get a pulse on what has been successful and what could use reconsideration in terms of how you’re sharing love with your child. As you open your heart to consciously loving in new ways, it’s important to welcome any changes you perceive in your child’s ways of conveying or embracing love.
And ultimately, let’s remember that whether it’s choosing to spark your child’s love language or not, they can never have too much love–and they’re lucky to have yours!