Applying the ‘Love Languages’ to the Parent-Child Relationship

GoodTherapy | Applying the 'Love Languages' to the Parent-Child RelationshipWhen counseling parents and their children, I often refer to the “love languages”—an idea coined by Dr. Gary Chapman, a relationship counselor most well known for the Love Languages series of books.

People express their love in a variety of ways, and what is important to one person may not be as much to another. If someone’s top languages are not being met, it can lead to negative feelings and behaviors.

The five love languages are as follows:

  1. Physical touch
  2. Words of affirmation
  3. Quality time
  4. Gift giving
  5. Acts of service

While you may have heard of the love languages, you may not have applied them to the parent-child relationship. It’s telling kids “I love you” in a language they respond to. Saying the words often isn’t enough. Parents often assume their kids know they are loved, but that’s not always the case.

Love should be unconditional, but is often displayed conditionally (such as when kids are good). Unconditional love can prevent problems such as resentment, feelings of guilt, fear, anger, low self-esteem, and insecurity. Children need to feel loved; if they don’t, they may seek approval elsewhere.

Now let’s talk about how to incorporate these into your daily lives:

1. Some ways to incorporate physical touch include hugging, kissing, child sitting on lap, cuddling during stories, television, or movies, tossing in the air, gentle touches on legs, arms, head, shoulders, etc., back scratches, high-fives and contact sports.

As kids get older, parents may touch only when necessary, like when helping with clothes or hair. Kids will crave more contact when sick, hurt, tired, or sad. Teenagers, especially boys, will pull back from physical touch. Make sure the touch is positive and at the right time and place. Don’t embarrass!

Conversely, a negative touch coming from a place of anger can be detrimental.

2. Words of affirmation are ways to give praise and encouragement for what the child does. Since a child’s behavior is something he or she controls, there is a direct effect.

Be genuine when giving praise. Praising too frequently may have little positive effect, as it can come across as insincere. This can set up an expectation for praise, and create anxiety when it is absent. The way you word praise and your voice tone and volume make a big difference. Words of guidance will be sought elsewhere—from school, TV, peers, or other adults—if not received from parents.

Although it may seem obvious, words of negativity really hurt, and the greatest enemy of encouragement is anger.

Make sure to say “I love you” on its own, not with qualifiers such as “but …” or “will you …” attached.

3. Spend quality time with your child. Kids really seem to crave this, especially any one-on-one time. This love language is fairly self-explanatory. It can be going somewhere or just hanging out. Think of those moments when you’re sharing thoughts and feelings, having good, quality conversations. Mealtime, going for walks, story time, or bedtime can be good opportunities.

4. Giving gifts can be one that parents roll their eyes at. Of course kids like gifts! However, it is more about the thought behind it. In a child’s mind: “You were thinking of me and got it, since I’m important.” Other languages need to be combined with gift giving. It is not a paycheck or bribe, nor should it be a substitute for time spent. As with praise, excess gifts lose their meaning. You can tell gift giving is important if kids express excitement when receiving a gift or based on how it is presented, or display it proudly.

5. Acts of service is a big part of being a parent, as the list of tasks, errands, and to-do list items never seems to end. Acts of service refers to going above and beyond making sure kids’ needs are met. This could include offering to help with something before they ask, or at least not saying “in a minute” when they do. Encouraging a hobby, checking homework, hosting events for the kids at home, or doing things to make an illness more bearable are other examples.

To discover someone’s primary language, note the following:

  1. Observe how they express love to you.
  2. Observe how they express love to others.
  3. Listen to what they request most often.
  4. Notice what they complain about the most.
  5. Give them choices between two options.

You need to show love in all five ways, but try to discover the person’s primary language (or top two or three). When the person is under 5 years old, try to hit all five languages.

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  • darla

    February 15th, 2013 at 11:13 PM

    thank you for this.I have a two year old daughter and these tips will come in handy.although I already do a lot of these love language I think I can improve in the praise department.its not that I don’t praise her but yes the wording,tone and volume as you have suggested need to be worked upon.

    kids need attention time affection and love no doubt.but providing those in the right way is what puts the cherry on top,its what makes it complete.once again thank you for this very helpful article.

  • alana

    February 16th, 2013 at 6:24 AM

    The love languages are so much easier to express when your children are younger but I have to say that it IS a challenge sometimes as they get older and move into those tween years. But somehow I have come to the conclusion that these are the years when that is the most important. I know that my girls hear me when I tell them I love them but I think that they see it and get it even more when I do those other things for them that reaffirm to them just how much they do mean to me.

  • Coleman

    February 17th, 2013 at 5:31 AM

    I remember talking about this some in college but honestly that’s been so long ago that I have forgotten about it.
    Thank you for reminding me about Gary Chapman because I am going to head online and see if I can find some of these writings to download.
    I am really needing this in my house right now.

  • Modupe

    April 14th, 2020 at 7:43 AM

    This is an absolutely good read!

  • Jess Samms

    February 18th, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    I find that the one thing that I am always lacking with my children is that quality time that is so important. I tell them I love them, give them ugs, and all of that is wonderful, but between their schedules and mine, how do we then fit in time that is good for all of us that encourages us to be closer to one another? I know that has to sound like such a poor excuse but it is so hard to fit that time in together when sometimes it feels like we only see each other in passing from one event to another! Do you have any suggestions how to make this happen a little more easily and how to find things to do together that all of us can enjoy?

  • Melissa Wright

    February 18th, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    The website is He has many books and one specifically for children. It definitely becomes more of a challenge as kids get older.

    Quality time refers to special moments/times you spend together. It depends on their age and everyone’s interests, but this could be reading books before bed, any meals, watching a game together or working on a project. They will remember moments, not the number of hours you spend with them, so try not to stress too much about that part.

  • Silas

    February 18th, 2013 at 5:10 PM

    As a new parent I welcome this.There is so much to learn as a parent.It is so much of a responsibility!

    Sometimes I have self doubts as to whether I can be a good parent but I am trying to adapt to this new role.Have been reading and discussing a lot on parenting.It is nice to see how different ways of expressing the same thing can achieve different results.Will definitely concentrate on the tips here.Thanks a lot.

  • Wayne

    February 18th, 2013 at 11:20 PM

    @Jess: I faced the same issue in my childhood. My parents never had the opportunity to spend quality time with me. And the results are not good. Now that they have passed I miss them dearly and crave for the times and moments we missed.

    That has prompted me to make sure the same does not repeat with my own children. I forgo television or browsing the Internet or whatever unimportant task I can think of and just sit together with my children and talk. Meals are a good time to be with family too. Look around your schedule and I’m sure you can find a few things too. All the best, give your children the time, they definitely need and deserve it.

  • Niecie

    February 19th, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    It’s not even as if these are things that you should have to struggle to give. They are just things that any kind and compassionate person will do automatically.

    We act like these are things that we should have to strive to do, whereas anyone who cares about you, you will find that they are giving these things to you automatically and without another thought.

  • Melissa Wright

    February 19th, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    Every person has their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the Love Languages. Some are great at performing acts of service, but don’t with words of encouragement. Someone else may shy away from physical touch, but do well in other areas. Sometimes absent parents overdo it with gift giving, since they’re not around much, but it shouldn’t be a replacement. Its perfectly normal to have to make more of an effort in certain areas, especially if they are important to the child. Just being aware of whats important is a great start.

  • Harris

    February 19th, 2013 at 11:37 PM

    Expressing love towards children is not uncommon. yet many of us do not do so in the best possible way. giving money to your children because you feel guilty about not spending enough time with them is not an expression of love. the right way would be to forgo a thing or two and to ensure you spend that time with your children. as parents we need to see how best we can satisfy their need of being loved, in a way that best suits them and is beneficial to them.

  • terra

    February 20th, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    All of these are elements that will add so much care and love back into any relationship.
    It is great for a parent to employ these with their children but it is also wonderful to be in a committed marital relationship that uses them and takes them into account as well.

  • Xavier

    February 21st, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    The love languages have to be utilized throughout the child’s life not just at the time where you might be experiencing any difficulties for them to mean the most and for them to really matter.

  • Reuben.P

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:25 PM

    As a parent I just cannot differentiate between appreciative gift giving and constant showering of presents. I always end up gifting my children and I think it is reducing the joy and anticipation each one brings. While I may not really be ‘spoiling’ them I would love to be able to differentiate between the two and make every gift seem hard earned to them, because that is how it was for me in my childhood and I enjoyed that.

  • b t e

    February 22nd, 2013 at 11:38 PM

    never had any of these from my parents when i was little.all I got was abuse.I don’t know sometimes I feel like all of what happened in my past will never let me be a good parent.I have determined to be a much better and probably a great parent but at times it all seems like a waste,like I am destined to not be one because of what I have been through :|

  • marla

    February 23rd, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    While I appreciate these words of wisdom, i feel like I have tried it all and am still not getting through to my son. What have I done so wrong for there to constantly be so much conflict between the two of us?

  • Louise Romain

    February 25th, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    I am biased because I’m a trainer with the center for Nonviolent Communication. Have you tried NVC? I learnt and practiced, practiced, practiced, and I have been able to radically transformed my relationship with my two children.
    I’m writing this from Thailand where my son invited me to spend a month chilling out together. Yay!!

  • Gloria r

    February 25th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    Please don’t give up on you or your son, Marla. This has to be a difficult time that you are going through, but i promise that if you keep at it with him then eventually you will have that breakthrough that you need to know that it is a good thing to keep trying. There are natuarlly going to be some kids with whom this is easy and the ones who are harder to break through with. But if you keep it up and you do finally make that breakthrough then it will definitely be worth it.

  • Melissa Wright

    February 25th, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    Yes Marla, don’t give up, Gloria is right, it isn’t too late and things can get better.
    Parents are not destined to make the same mistakes their parents did. I’ve seen plenty of adults that had horrific childhoods and are now great parents.
    As far as gift giving, as long as its not the only language used and the child starts to act like they don’t care about any gifts, you’re probably ok. Giving into every demand and tantrum is not gift giving, there is a lot of thought and care put into it.

  • Wendy

    July 26th, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    I see a lot of anger and frustration when i was a child between my mum n brother so i became withdrawn. Hid in my room all the time. Became a lost child not socialising with others i was never told i was loved so now i have my own children i find it hard to communicate. With them and i feel everything has been lost due to one not wanting to know me at all and it breaks my heart My family is very much broken my marriage has just gone because i have problems expressing myself what hope is there now

  • Danielle

    January 22nd, 2016 at 7:26 PM

    Oh boy. Dont feel that way. There is always hope.

  • Tina

    September 16th, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    The physical love language comes so easy to me with my kids because they are so cute you want to cuddle them and kiss them all the time, as least when they are young like mine. We also talk to and serve and spend time with and buy them their needs/wants so often as our children grow. It takes just a minute to think out side the box for special ways to show them we love them in all different love languages. I think I will try giving my daughter 2 options to find out her love language, that is a good idea.

  • Deb

    February 13th, 2015 at 2:47 PM

    My daughter is 30 years old and I just found out she is physical touch . I hug her and hold her hand now all the time . We have a lot of years to make up for . I wish I had known this when my kids were growing up! Never too late !

  • patricia.e

    February 13th, 2015 at 7:02 PM

    This is one of the best written articles on the 5 Love Languages used with Children I’ve ever seen. Easy to understand and apply it to daily living. Thank you.

  • Jackie J.

    August 2nd, 2015 at 8:47 PM

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I’m not sure who I will use this on because my children are adults now, which has changed the dynamics of our relationship.
    As an active parent I was only consistent in two ways.
    1). I gave my son lot’s of hugs
    2). And always told him that I LOVED him and no-body could ever get in the way of that.
    I find that it was easy to give what I wanted as a kid, but not always easy to give affirmations. I wish that I had been better at that, he did have an uncle who was good at saying positive things to my son.
    He is 41 going on 42 years old and seems to be fairly well rounded.
    Anyway my behavior changed as I gathered more information and I became more positive towards him.
    That’s the end of my summary of being a parent.
    If you have any feedback you would like to offer. I would be grateful for it!

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