The five love languages, a concept developed by pastor and writer Gary Chapman, have become a popular framework for looking at relationships. The idea is that we each have our own preferred ways of expressing love and receiving the love of others, and that knowing what these preferences are can strengthen our bonds with loved ones.
As identified by Chapman, the five love languages are physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time and gifts.
We most often think of love languages when it comes to our romantic relationships, but some experts say it can be helpful to understand the role they play in our relationships with our children.
I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical that the idea of love languages would be relevant to parenting. The way my life revolves around my children, I feel like everything I do is an act of love for them. How could anyone not see that? And what did it matter how they expressed their love to me, when my love for them is constant and unconditional?
But then I actually went and took one of the quizzes, and learned that my preferred love language is physical touch. Looking at my parenting from that angle, it’s easy to see why I felt so fulfilled (and, honestly, competent) when I was caring for an infant who spent all day in my arms, and why breastfeeding was so important to me. It also helps explain my struggle to feel connected sometimes with my teenager, who has grown out of nighttime cuddles.
You’re probably using each of these love languages with your child already, but taking a moment to recognize when you choose to use each one, and thinking about how your own preference influences the way you express your love, is an opportunity to strengthen your connection with your kid.
It’s important to note that love languages are a theory. “Although they are based on research-backed ways of communicating love, the entire concept has not been validated by research,” child psychologist Cara Goodwin told HuffPost. Love languages are a tool — one of many — you can use when thinking about your family relationships.
How can love languages affect parenting?
It can be helpful to think about which love languages you tend to use with your kids, and assess the ways in which they most feel loved.
“Our children are all unique, and it’s worth taking time to explore the different types of attention that they respond most to, as this can help us as parents to form an even deeper connection with them,” Genevieve von Lob, clinical psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child,” told HuffPost.
It turns out there are some patterns in the way parents express their love to their children.
“Research finds that the most common love language that parents use with their child is acts of service, followed by physical touch, quality time and then gifts,” Goodwin said. “The least common is words of affirmation.”
It’s possible that a child may feel like you are holding back affection because you’re not articulating your love with words. At the same time, you may feel like all the things you do for your child on a given day are a better measure of your love for them.
There are online quizzes you can use to identify your child’s love language ― but you can also figure it out pretty quickly once you start looking for clues.
“Pay attention to what your kids say,” Mercedes Samudio, therapist and author of “Shame-Proof Parenting,” told HuffPost. “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Look at what you’re already doing that your kids are already saying, ‘Can we do more of that?’ ‘Do that again.’ ‘I like that.’”
It could be something as simple as serving pancakes for dinner. Parents should “make an effort to communicate love to their child in a way that matches their love language, even if it might feel slightly unnatural for themselves,” Goodwin said.
Just make sure that when you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone, you’re still coming from a place of authenticity.
“Children are very perceptive and they don’t play along with cookie-cutter parenting techniques,” von Lob said. “They respond to warmth, connection and attachment, so it’s important that you feel comfortable and believe in the love language you are using.”
No matter the love language, it’s important not to withhold affection from kids, even if they don’t seem to be reacting.
“It is developmentally normal for children to act ungrateful toward expressions of love, and it does not mean they are not experiencing gratitude (only that they are not expressing it),” Goodwin explained.
Don’t let that stop you from expressing affection frequently, in various ways, with your kids. Goodwin cited research showing that having a very affectionate mother as a baby was associated with less distress in adulthood. “In other words, you cannot love your children ‘too much,’” she said.
Understand, however, that your affection may not always be reciprocated, or returned to you in the love language you prefer.
“Parents should recognize that their children will not always satisfy their love languages,” Goodwin said, adding that parents need to have other people in their lives to meet this need.
Knowing your love language can also help you see family dynamics in a new light. “Oftentimes, I’ll hear parents say, ‘No one appreciates me in my family. No one knows what I do. No one sees it,’” Samudio said.
Thinking about the interplay of love languages in your home can help you see ways that your family is showing love, just not the way that you need it — and perhaps “that when you’re not getting it that way, how that’s depleting you,” Samudio said. If this is the case, you might try to find ways to have these needs met in other relationships.
You can, however, model expressions of gratitude when your kids do show their affection. Goodwin gave the following examples: “Thank you for hugging me. That really filled my bucket after a hard day.” Or: “Did you notice that your brother worked so hard to draw that picture for you?”
Here are some things to consider as a parent, based on your own love language preferences:
If, like me, you find those nighttime cuddles sustaining, there’s no reason to hold back on hugs and kisses — unless your child isn’t receptive.
Goodwin cited research showing that a lot of maternal touch helps kids develop their “social brain,” as well as another study showing that maternal touch early in life correlates with psychosocial and moral development.
“If your child doesn’t want a hug or physical closeness, you may notice that you may feel pushed away and rejected,” von Lob said. She referred to these points of sensitivity as “rejection buttons,” in which a minor incident can trigger raw feelings. It can be helpful to recognize when this happens to you, and remember that the feeling is more about you and your past than your child’s actual love.
If your kid has a sensory sensitivity, autism or another neurological difference, you may have to get creative, and step out of your comfort zone, when it comes to expressing your love.
Also take into account the setting. It’s normal for kids to get more self-conscious about expressing affection in public as they grow, but you may be able to hold on to that goodnight hug and kiss for a while longer.
Finally, if your needs for physical affection just aren’t getting met, you can ask your partner to step up, or find other ways to get your fill. It’s likely no coincidence that now that my “babies” are big, I spend a lot of time cuddled up on the couch with our family dog.
Words of affirmation
“I really appreciate all the effort you put into getting dinner on the table tonight” — not a sentence one of my kids has uttered. Yet. (I still have hope.)
Kids aren’t known for praising their parents, but there are ways to encourage them to get in the habit of expressing love and gratitude verbally.
Samudio suggests setting up an “affirmation” or “kind words” box. Throughout the week, or whatever time frame you want to work with, all members of the family can write down (or dictate) an expression of gratitude or appreciation for another family member. Then, at a chosen moment, you all take out the affirmations and read them. This way, Samudio explained, “it becomes OK, we as a family cultivate words of affirmation” rather than just meeting the needs of one person.
When “everyone is saying kind words to each other, we all benefit,” she said.
When your offer words of praise to your children, it’s important “that the praise feels genuine and earned,” said von Lob. She recommends being specific, such as “Thanks for helping me unpack the groceries,” rather than “You’re so helpful.”
You may also want to consider whether your praise supports a growth mindset, in which your children see achievements as a result of effort instead of fixed, innate talent.
“Parents need to be careful to praise their child’s effort, strategy, and process, rather than praising traits that they cannot change as easily (such as intelligence, talent, or beauty),” Goodwin said, noting that research has found that this growth-focused or “process praise” enhances children’s “intrinsic motivation and persistence when faced with challenges.”
Acts of service
Much of parenting may feel like an act of service, but if this is your love language, you may find particular fulfillment in preparing a special meal for your child, or assembling that new bed. Some of these might become family traditions, like designing a homemade Halloween costume or baking a birthday cake.
Just keep in mind that you don’t want to overdo it. “Parents who enjoy acts of service need to be careful that they are not getting in the way of their child learning important skills to gain independence,” Goodwin said. Kids also need to learn how to cook and do laundry, for example.
If acts of service are your love language and it feels like your family members aren’t sending you a lot of love in this way, Samudio suggests being specific in your requests and spelling out what they mean to you.
For example, if you want your family members not to forget to bring their dishes into the kitchen, you might say: “You know that I don’t like the dishes all over the house, so when you make the conscious choice to put it away, I feel like you care about me.”
All kids benefit from a parent’s complete attention, especially when it’s one-on-one. It can be a challenge to fit this into a hectic schedule, but you don’t need a lot of time for this to be effective — it’s about quality, not quantity.
Even 10 minutes can make a difference in your relationship with your child.
“Quality time should ideally involve one-on-one time with few distractions, including no use of phones or technology and resisting our urges to be productive during this time,” Goodwin said. “Try to focus all of your attention on your child.”
Some children do crave more one-on-one time than others, but all children will go through phases when they need it more. The arrival of a sibling, for example, is a good moment to start scheduling regular one-on-one time with an older child.
“I see it like our children needing to ‘plug into’ us, and when they have had their fill of your full attention and presence, they feel more connected to you and their ‘attachment tank’ is filled up,” von Lob explained.
If quality time is your own love language, you may particularly savor these moments, but most parents will also see an improvement in their kids’ behavior and an ease in their interactions following some dedicated one-on-one time.
You can also try to fill your need for quality time with family in small ways throughout the week. You don’t need a fancy vacation to connect with each other. It might simply be a family meal, a board game, a movie or a walk around the neighborhood. Samudio mentioned that she knows families who connect by playing video games together.
To find the right activity, she suggested asking “How do I know that I’ve spent quality time with my family?” and then “trying to see how to cultivate more of that during your week.”
As with acts of service, it’s most important that gifts are meaningful. They don’t need to be big, expensive or frequent.
A child care worker I know once advised me never to turn down food offered by a child, so as not to reject their generosity. This struck me as potentially pretty gross. I definitely didn’t want my baby’s soggy Cheerios anywhere near my mouth. I did find, however, that I could make a big show of thanks and do my best Cookie Monster impression of “eating” the food, which their giggles seemed to indicate they appreciated on some level. An advantage of this strategy was that it worked just as well with Play-Doh, leaves and other imaginary food.
If your love language is gifts, be on the lookout for small or unconventional offerings from your children: a rock, a flower, a piece of your favorite Halloween candy.
Let your child know that you appreciate their effort and intention even more than the gift itself: “You remembered that peanut butter cups are my favorite. Thank you for thinking of me.”
Remember that your kids’ love languages will likely change over time, so be attentive to how they’re receiving the love you express for them. You want to communicate this love as a constant as they change and grow.
Kids should know that “you don’t get your love language based on how good you are. It doesn’t get taken away from you based on how bad you are,” Samudio said. “It’s just something that we do in our family to show that we care about each other.”