Decoding a Child’s Love Language

Miami, FL, October 26, 2020Each child yearns for attention and affection in different ways. Whether it’s words of affirmation, physical touch or other, each of these expressions of love constitutes a different language. Children require all manner of demonstrations of love to feel secure, accepted, heard and understood. These demonstrations from a parent can make children emotionally happier and less anxious. If there’s something the pandemic has made clear, it’s that establishing a connection with your child through love language is key to foster a deeper foundation. 

Suzanne Barchers, EdD, former Editor in Chief and VP of Leapfrog Enterprises, and former Managing Editor at Weekly Reader and Ellen Wartella, Professor and Director of the Center on Media and Human Development of Northwestern University sat down with Kate Regan, Senior Manager, Learning Experience at Lingokids, to discuss the importance of love languages to strengthen the connection between parents and kids. 

  • Kate: What are the different types of love language? What do they mean?

Suzanne: Demonstrating love, whether originated by a child or a parent, takes many forms. Physical displays of affection are modeled when a baby first is placed in a mother or father’s arms. It’s almost impossible not to cuddle, coo, and kiss that newborn. Infants respond positively and feel secure and comforted, long before the words “love” are attached to the action or verbal expression. Some older children need constant verbal reinforcement that they are loved. 

My kindergarten grandchild tells me she loves me all day long. It’s like a mantra. Sometimes she says, “I love you. That’s all I could think of to say.” She’s using her love language to connect, to be sure that I’m in attendance. In that case, the verbal part is as important as the physical part, which she also shares freely as hugs. She also uses her verbal skills to express what she thinks about being made to learn her numbers and letters and sounds. I hear, “You’re torturing me” about once a week. I respond with, “It may seem that way, but I’m really teaching you things that I know you can learn. So I’m helping you.” “Okaaaay, but it feels like torture.” And then we laugh together, because it’s safe for her to express her frustration, and we share that appreciation.

As children age, they may want fewer cuddles. And If the parents are always verbally stating their love, those announcements, if too frequent, risk becoming background noise. The non-verbal demonstrations of love, such as preparing meals, doing laundry, ensuring health, happiness, and a good education don’t necessarily feel like love acts to a child. They assume “it’s your job” as a parent. They require reminders that you do these things and make certain decisions because you love them and are particularly concerned for their health and safety during these difficult times.

Children take a lot for granted. They assume you enjoy doing chores. Yet, in some cultures, children participate in chores as soon as they can barely walk. They are methodically taught how to fold their laundry and put it away. Insisting that children participate in daily tasks is a true form of love from the parent. It takes longer to teach these skills than to do them yourself. But it pays off. You are raising an independent, skilled child.

Certain expressions can indicate love indirectly: “I love the way you helped your little sister get in the car. That helps me too.” “I appreciate the way you helped entertain our new puppy. That shows me you care.” “I was so surprised when you put all the dirty dishes on the counter without being asked. You’re really becoming a great helper in our family.”

Ellen: Love language can be shown in several ways, but the first and foremost form is through hugs, kisses and cuddles. Physical affection is really important especially for young children, although my boys always including now, enjoyed and wanted them.

  • Kate: How is this different from verbal language?  

Suzanne: As time passes, you may have a child that doesn’t like to be touched or hugged as the child grows older. The child may view a hug as an interruption to a task or pastime. A goodbye hug often signals that the parent is leaving—a separation that may seem interminable to a young child. Resisting that good-bye hug delays the impending separation, doubly worrisome during a pandemic.

For some children, being touched or hugged feels like smothering. And for those children on the Asperger or Autism spectrum, affectionate touch needs to be handled with care, adapted to the child’s comfort level. This can be tough for a parent or grandparent who finds touching and hugging a normal display of love. My older granddaughter has flinched when I’ve casually touched her. I’ve wondered if she disliked me. Since I’ve been homeschooling her and her sister, this has gradually improved. She may lean against me as we’re working on a math problem. She may even give me a spontaneous goodbye hug. When I asked her why she sometimes says, “Don’t touch me,” she says that it feels like tickles. And indeed, some children just can’t stand that ticklish touch, which I am trying to respect. And I’ve learned not to let it bother me. When she hops off her chair to open the garage door as I take out the trash, I know she loves me. When she says, “Talking through these assignments with me really helps me learn,” I know she loves what we are doing, and probably me. 

Ellen: Word of affection. A language that says I love you, I’m proud of you, you did that so very, very well. These sorts of verbal support and approval represent an affirming language of love. Saying please and thank you to even young children to show you appreciate and respect and love them.

  • Kate: How important is learning your kids’ love language and what are the implications in terms of the parent-child relationship? 

Suzanne: Interpreting your child’s love language takes a bit of observational work. If you get home from a busy day at work and all your child wants to do is babble about the day, remember that your child is expressing love. That child wants to share as much as possible about the day. It may be exhausting, but try to endure the onslaught. And, oh my, the constant interruptions around the dinner table can drive a parent to distraction! I am teaching my grandkids a little trick I learned from a former boss. If something pops into your mind that you want to share, pause in your thinking, cross your fingers, and “mark” that thought for sharing when there is a logical break in the conversation. It takes a little practice, and now I can sense the anxious desire to share and I just hold up crossed fingers with a raised eyebrow. They know that means, “Can you save it for later?” Over time, the indications of needing a bit more love become more subtle, and also more easily recognizable. This is exactly the time to think about the love language—what you’re expressing as well as your child.

Ellen: Ways of affirming the child’s importance to the family and to the parent and/or caregiver by acknowledging their actions and help in day to day tasks such as cleaning their room, helping clear dishes at meals, putting their toys away—even young children can show and be reinforced for their actions of love and respect.

  • Kate: As kids navigate the pandemic, how has the role of love language connection between parents-kids changed? 

Suzanne: I think that children need all sorts of demonstrations of love these days to foster security. Most children think of their parents as superheroes. Take advantage of bedtime, when your children are more likely to express their fears. Reading aloud a story helps with the bedtime transition. Don’t be afraid to ask: “Do you want to cuddle? A hug? A kiss goodnight?”. For the child who resists touch, you can ask: “Can I blow you a kiss? I’m going to fly some imaginary butterfly kiss right to your nose…catch them!”. Keep the displays playful, and don’t feel hurt if you have to recognize nonverbal love, such as a sudden, unexpected act or completion of a chore. 

Ellen: I would also add that parents/caregivers should express love for their partners and express this in front of their children with affectionate touches, hugs, and especially with demonstrations of respect, such as saying “thank you” and “please” to their partners. This is communicated to their children as another kind of love language.

Suzanne Barchers, EdD is the Former Editor in Chief and VP of Leapfrog Enterprises, former Managing Editor at Weekly Reader. She’s an award-winning author of more than 250 books for teachers and children, plus two college textbooks, and served on PBS and Association of Educational Publishers Advisory Boards. 

Ellen A. Wartella, PhD is a researcher in the role of media in children’s development. She is the Al-thani Professor of Communication Studies, Director of the Center on Media and Human Development and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University.

Kate Regan is an American educator, mother, and musician. She has worked on interactive educational video games, books, toys, and apps for LeapFrog, Hasbro, Disney, and Nickelodeon to name a few. Now, as a Senior Manager of Learning Experience at Lingokids, she connects her passion for games, music, and curriculum development.

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