When you took the Love Languages quiz a couple of years ago and discovered that yours was acts of service and your partner’s was words of affirmation, it was a total game-changer for you as a couple (cue your spouse doing the laundry every Sunday and you praising his sharp folding skills). Could the same philosophy help you with your offspring? We tapped Dr. Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and author of What it’s Worth - a Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting, for her advice on how to find your kid’s love language—and why it matters. (Note: The below advice works best for kids ages 5 and up.)
What are the love languages again?
Introduced by marriage counselor and author Dr. Gary Chapman in his 1992 book, The 5 Love Languages, the idea behind love languages is to understand and communicate what it takes for a person to feel loved. Enter the five different love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, physical touch and acts of service.
Why is it important to know your child's love language?
“When children feel loved not only does it bolster their self-esteem, but it also gives them a solid foundation and sense of security so they can more fully explore the world around them,” explains Dr. Cook. And she isn’t just referring to your kid’s tendency to run around the playground—this sense of security also relates to seeking out and developing relationships with peers, other family members and friends. “When you know your child’s specific love language (or their top two), you are able to channel your energy toward gestures that reflect their ‘language.’ This takes out the guesswork and means your efforts are hitting at the maximum benefit level,” she adds.
This information is especially helpful when your kid is having a hard time with something. If you know what their love language is then you’ll have specific behaviors in your back pocket that you know can help them feel loved (and hopefully shift their mood). In other words, knowing your child’s love language helps you connect with them and might just make parenting a little easier.
How can I figure out which of the five love languages my child prefers?
Here are two ways to identify your kid’s love language:
- Take an online test aimed at identifying your child's love language. You can take one developed by Dr. Chapman and/or take one that Dr. Cook created.
- Reflect on times when your child was upset. Think about the last time that your kid was sad, or go back to when they were years younger—what were the things that helped them calm down the most? Was it gentle words of kindness while reminding them how amazing they are? Or maybe when your kid was a toddler and having a tantrum, the only thing that would help was picking them off the floor and calmly rocking them until they settled down. Or perhaps when your child was sick and accidentally ruined their favorite shirt, you replaced it with a new one before they even asked. “Looking at what brought comfort to your child in the past can often lead you to their love language now,” says Dr. Cook.
How to Appeal to Your Child’s Love Language
If your child’s self-esteem and attitude skyrockets when you spend 1:1 time together, then their love language could be quality time. “Foster this by setting aside specific times during the week that is ‘your special time’ with them,” advises Dr. Cook. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Engage 100 percent in a preferred activity of theirs (like building with Magna-Tiles, reading a book together or going for a walk). This can be a short amount of time (say, 10 minutes) but make sure to give them your undivided attention.
- Set aside a chunk of time once a week to have “us time” and plan together during the week what you will do, like baking a cake or doing some crafts.
- Watch a movie together.
- Let your kid know you canceled your plans (once in a while) when conflicts arise to do their thing instead of yours.
- Don’t have time to sit down with your kid for special bonding time this week? Hey, it happens. Sometimes it’s just about sharing the same space, says Dr. Cook. Try being present in their room while doing some work (whether that’s a work call or folding laundry) while they play.
Acts of service
Let’s say you one day help your kid tidy their room or make their favorite chocolate chip cookies just because—does your child get over the top excited (“You’re the best, mom!”)? Acts of service may be their love language. Here are some ways to show them how much you care.
- Every once in a while, do one of your kids’ chores like taking out the trash, doing the dishes or making their bed. (Just make sure they’re is doing their job 90 percent or more of the time already!)
- Fill-up the gas in your teenager’s car.
- Warm your kid’s clothes in the dryer in the morning on a cold day.
- Replace the batteries of a broken toy.
- Help them with a school project.
“If you know that when your child behaves badly (talking back, lashing out, hitting, etc.) they calm down when you hold them, then physical touch is their language of love,” says Dr. Cook. To prevent big meltdowns, she suggests offering loving touch in small and big doses whenever possible. Here are four ideas for doing exactly that.
- Offer to cuddle.
- Buy different bristle paint brushes and “paint” their arms, back and legs (this could be done in a bath or just when watching TV).
- Give a gentle shoulder squeeze as you walk past.
- Hold hands as you walk.
- Kiss your child on the palm of their hands (like in The Kissing Hand book).
“A child whose love language is gift giving will feel seen, appreciated, remembered and loved when you bring them anything from small to large gifts,” says Dr. Cook. They may also have trouble throwing items away that were given to them (even if they haven’t used them in ages). But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to shell out hundreds of dollars to show your kid you love them—gift giving isn’t about how much something costs, it's about the fact that you thought about them when they weren’t with you. Here are some ways to show love through gift giving.
- Surprise them with their favorite snack when going grocery shopping.
- See something special in nature (like a smooth rock or brightly-colored leaf) and offer it to them.
- Wrap-up a forgotten and cherished toy with a note sharing a specific memory of them and the toy.
- Gather wildflowers to present to them after a walk.
- Create a stickers chart and give your child a sticker or star whenever you sense they need to feel valued.
Words of affirmation
You tell your kid how proud you are of them for studying so hard or that they did a great job taking care of their little sister and their eyes light up with joy—hello, words of affirmation. “Your words spur them on to continue acting in positive and beneficial ways,” says Dr. Cook. Here are some ideas for how to show a kid who thrives from positive verbal feedback how loved they are.
- Leave a note of encouragement for them in their lunch.
- Let them overhear you talking positively about them to someone (this can even be a stuffed animal).
- Say affirmations with them each day (like “I am brave” or “I can do hard things”).
- Call or text them out of the blue with an inspirational quote.
- Say “I love you” often and with no strings attached (i.e., don’t say “I love you but…”).