5 Ways to Decode Your Child's Love Language

The book The 5 Love Languages was initially aimed at couples, but parents can learn a few things from it, too.

Suzanne Barchers of Colorado agreed to help her two granddaughters ages 5 and 10 with schoolwork during the pandemic. She's known them their entire lives, but while she thought she would be teaching them, they actually had a lot to teach her—about themselves.

The two children have what's known as different "love languages." The term, which comes from the 1992 book The Five Love Languages, suggests that people show and receive love in different ways.

An image of a mother and daughter on a couch.
Getty Images.

Barchers, Ed.D., who recently spoke about decoding a child's love language on behalf of the app Lingokids, noticed her 5-year-old granddaughter expresses her love with physical touch (hugs or hand-holding) and her fifth-grade granddaughter prefers acts of service (helping with a task, for example). In addition to physical touch and acts of service, people also show and receive love through words of affirmation, gifts, and quality time, according to the book.

When the book was published, the idea of love languages was aimed at couples. But today, many parents and caretakers are realizing that understanding how a child shows and receives love can help you better communicate with them.

"We all want to feel loved and connected unconditionally," explains Laura Froyen, Ph.D., a Wisconsin-based parenting consultant and founder of Balanced Parenting Community. "It's one of the most basic human needs."

Figuring out your child's love language can help you build a deep bond. Fortunately, there are some techniques to help you ID it, too. Here, what the love languages look like and how to find out which speaks to your child.

What the Five Love Languages Look Like

Except for words of affirmation, which is defined mostly by verbal communication, love languages often involve mostly non-verbal communication, says Dr. Froyen. Here's what they tend to look like:

  • Acts of Service: These are all about doing things to help someone else. Children who prefer this love language may appreciate it when caregivers help them tie their shoes or brush their teeth.
  • Gifts: Bringing a present home from a store or after a trip is one way to show this type of love. "Gifts" is one of Dr. Froyen's daughter's love languages: "If I go on a walk and give her a pretty leaf that reminds me of her, she feels incredibly loved," she says.
  • Words of Affirmation: Children who identify with this love language like it when you let them know that they are important and that you are listening. "Say, 'I see you're working so hard on that,'" Dr. Froyen suggests.
  • Physical Touch: Hugs, cuddles, holding hands, and sitting on your lap might fill children who identify with this love language up.
  • Quality Time: This is all about time spent with one another. "Get down on the floor, and enjoy them in their world," suggests Dr. Froyen.

It's worth noting, though, that early on, children don't have a defined love language. How we respond to their displays of affection as caregivers actually helps them flesh out and "choose" one by the time they are 5 or 6 years old, experts say. When your child nears this age, these tips can help you figure out which they've gravitated towards.

Observe your child

"Get really curious with them and watch how they express love to others," suggests Marcie Beigel, Ed.D., a behavioral specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. Do they run to you and give you a hug every morning and want to sit in your lap for storytime each night? Physical touch could be their love language. If they like to bring you home a present after a walk with Grandma, such as leaves or flowers, gifts may be their language.

Find voids and dislikes

Pay attention to statements such as, ''You never sit down and read with me anymore." These can be telling in suggestion what a child might need more of (quality time, for example), says Dr. Beigel. You can also hone in a love language through a process of elimination of sorts: Pick up on what a child might not like by watching if they shy away from certain behaviors (hugs).

Look for patterns

Give children choices and see if you can find a pattern in their preferences, says Dr. Barcher. If your child aces a math test, you may give them a choice between selecting a toy or having a special lunch just the two of you.

Understand your special needs child

Children with special needs, such as autism and sensory issues, may naturally express love differently than children without these issues. But a child who is slower to warm up to you or doesn't enjoy unexpected touches or loud expressions of affection still needs, craves, and shows love, says Dr. Beigel. "A huge misunderstanding in children with autism is that they are not loving or that they don't connect in that way. They do. It's just not in the same way that another child is going to express love." No two children are the same, so be sure not to put a child with special needs in a box.

Don't beat yourself up

Experts agree that parents should always try to meet their child's needs when it comes to showing affection. But it's also important to avoid being too hard on yourself if you're having trouble decoding your child's love language. Just like it can take a while to get to know a new baby, the way a child prefers to show affection isn't always clear as day. "At their core, love languages are about deep, authentic connection with the important people in your life, and when we are being hard on ourselves, we often take ourselves out of the moment, and as a result, out of connection," says Dr. Froyen. "Slow down, offer yourself, grace, drop into the present moment, just be with them, and they will undoubtedly feel your love."

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