We all have ways of communicating our love to those around us, and we all have preferred ways of receiving love from those around us. These differences can be learned from our culture or family, or innate to our personalities. They can also be reflective of our developmental or cognitive needs at the time.
The theory of love languages was first expressed by Dr. Gary Chapman in his book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. His book addresses communication in adult relationships, highlighting the love languages; “Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.” Since then, more information and research has been shared about Love Languages for various populations, including with children.
Children also have love languages, these can be similar or different than adult love languages. Here are some examples of how love languages show up for children, and ways you can show up for them!
Children will sometimes show that they want extra time with parents by asking for help. Sometimes they really need this help, but other times it’s a way of asking for nurturing, even when they already know how to do what they are asking you to do. Do you have a kiddo who knows how to put on their socks, but holds them up and says, “You do it.”? What your child might really be wanting is nurturance and reassurance. While they may physically be able to do this task they may emotionally be wanting some support. Try balancing this need with encouraging them to try the part on their own that they CAN do. Try saying, “Looks like you want help today, I’ll help you get your sock on your toe, and then you can pull them up.” Keep encouraging your child to do things on their own, understanding that sometimes they may need a little extra love.
Most children want gifts and ask for things. It’s in our nature as humans. It’s a child’s job to ask for things, and it’s a parent’s job to stand firmly in the limits and boundaries, while simultaneously allowing the child to have all their feelings about it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that buying your child gifts is the only way for them to feel loved. This is just not the case with most children. In fact, children who are given things as the only way of receiving love, often struggle to internalize this feeling of love, and continue to look outside of themselves for this. While it may be a way that they are trying to get love, what really feels good to children is having firm and clear boundaries and having parents who can tolerate and accept all their big feelings and disappointment. Try saying, “I know that toy seems really fun, I bet it would be nice to play with it. We aren’t buying that toy today. You are welcome to be sad about that.” When you do choose to buy your child a gift, try finding something that you know reflects their interest and their development. Are they into building, or dressing up? Giving gifts that really show your child you’ve been listening to them and understand their likes and dislikes can feel good and affirming to a child.
“Play with Me”
All children can benefit from sustained adult attention. Some children like when adults get on the floor and play along with them, other children like when adults just watch them play, and reflect understanding and connection. Children with different abilities have their own ways to engage and play with the world around them. When adults can enter into their world, through observation or participation, children feel seen and loved. Remember that the way YOU want to play, may not be the way that they need or want. Try taking your child’s lead and allowing them to show you how best to engage them. It turns out that caregivers can feel closer to their children through play as well!
Lots of research has shown that humans need touch to support their mental health. What kind of touch and how much can greatly vary for each individual. Some kids love hugs and snuggles, and others do not. Allow your child to set boundaries around the type of touch they want. Children who are non-verbal may express their likes and dislikes with non-verbal cues. Pay attention to these. Some children benefit greatly from eye contact, for others eye contact can feel especially distressing. Some children like secret handshakes, or fist bumps. Some kids like rough and tumble play with their caregivers as a form of loving and playful touch. If your kid is a touchy feely kid-great! If not, no worries, look for other ways your kiddo likes to receive love.
Many kids benefit from words of affirmation! Hearing daily that they are loved and cherished and wanted, can really help children formulate a story about themselves and their belonging in the family. For other children, the words don’t matter as much as the actions. They may need to hear the affirmations over and over- when just 20 minutes of play time seems to fill them up. If your child shrugs off your messages with an eye roll and an, “Ugh Dad, I know you love me.” Don’t be so quick to stop saying it. Sometimes kids don’t let on that these affirmations can mean a lot to them.
Keep a look out for other unique ways that your child’s “love tank” seems to be “filled up;” When you share a mutual joke, or tell them you were thinking of them? When you spend a good 30 minutes listening intently to them sharing with you the things they made in Minecraft that day? How about when you surprise them with a special one-on-one time date? Your kiddo likely has a way that they feel loved- it’s your job to find it!