Parents go the second mile to make their kids feel loved, but the message might not be getting through.
"Sometimes a child has good reason for feeling he isn't loved," asserts pastor and family counselor Gary Chapman, co-author with Dr. Ross Campbell of The Five Love Languages of Children (Northfield). "That's why we need to learn how to communicate love in a way that makes the child feel loved."
According to Chapman, each of us uses a primary love language to express love to others. It's through that same language that we most readily receive love. Here's how we can start speaking a new language to make sure our kids are getting the message.
Knowing how much parents love their children, it's amazing that the kids wouldn't feel loved. What are we missing?
Most of us love our kids in the way that comes most naturally to us?the way that we can best accept love. If your child speaks a different love language, he will feel loved at some level. But he won't feel the deep love that he craves.
So parents need to zero in on the language that speaks the loudest to each of their children. What are the love languages?
There are five of them, and they're pretty simple: acts of service, physical touch, giving gifts, sharing quality time together and speaking words of affirmation. We need to love our kids using all five languages. But to make sure your child knows without a doubt that you love him, it's important to speak his primary love language.
How can a parent identify the primary love language of a very young child?
You can't pinpoint it with infants and toddlers, so just give them a lot of love using all five languages. But by age 3 or 4, a child's love language starts developing, and by age 5 or 6 it's pretty evident.
Once a child develops a love language, how can a parent figure out which language it is?
It's a three-step process. First, observe how your child expresses love to you. For example, our son's love language is physical touch. When he was about 5, I noticed that when I came home from work he would jump on me and mess up my hair. He was touching me because he wanted to be touched. If your kid's always coming up and giving you a hug, physical touch may be his language.
Or let's say your child is always saying "You're the best mommy in the world." If he often praises you, then hearing words of affirmation is probably his primary language.
After you see how your child expresses love, what's the next step?
The next thing to look for is what your child requests of you. If she's always asking you to fix something that got broken or to help her with school work, then acts of service make her feel loved the most. But if your child always wants you to read stories to him or spend a lot of time playing games, chances are good his language is quality time.
What's the third step in pinpointing a child's primary love language?
Identify what your child is critical of and what he complains about. If he often says, "You went on a business trip but you didn't bring me anything!" he's probably telling you that his love language is giving and receiving gifts.
Once a parent figures out what language a child speaks, why is it important to emphasize that language?
We need to use each child's primary love language because that is what speaks most deeply to the child, making her confident that her parents really do love her. It brings the security and sense of well-being that she needs.
How can we guard against a child milking this thing to make us feel guilty or to manipulate us?
That is a danger, especially with gifts. Children are bombarded with television commercials telling them all the things they "ought to have". A parent absolutely should not give a child everything he wants, even if gifts are your child's primary love language.
How can a parent limit the gifts without making the child feel that expressions of love are also being limited?
Without spending any additional money, a parent can make gifts out of ordinary things. Let's say the child needs school clothes or some music for piano lessons. You buy what he needs and then wrap it with colorful paper and a bow. Make it a present and give it to the child in front of the rest of the family. The child feels loved, and it didn't cost the parent extra money.
What about gifts that don't cost any money?
Anything can be a gift—seashells, interesting rocks, pine cones. For a child whose primary love language is gifts, it really doesn't matter so much what the object is. It's the fact that you were thinking about her and you brought her a gift. That's what counts.
Let's talk about another tricky language?physical touch. As kids get older, they often resist physical affection from their parents. What's the best way to handle that?
We need to be sensitive to the ways children change in the early teen years. If your son stiffens when you hug him, it means he doesn't want that form of affection at that moment. In front of their friends, teenage boys do not want to be hugged, especially by their mothers. But if they're alone and Mom hugs them, they receive it. With Dad it's a little different. A father can walk up when friends are around and punch his son in the shoulder. That's okay.
How does this work with adolescent girls?
Many fathers of girls draw back from physical touch, but their daughters still need it. Obviously, the father of a teenage girl won't still be kissing her on the mouth or wrestling with her. But a dad needs to hug his daughter and pat her on the back and stroke her hair.
In fact, if a father doesn't express love by touching his daughter consistently, chances are she'll turn to somebody else. That's where a lot of sexual misbehavior comes from. Young girls who don't feel loved by their fathers seek love somewhere else.
Most kids won't just walk up and say, "I don't feel very loved today." How can parents gauge how well they're communicating their love?
The direct approach—asking your child—works. I often use a scale of zero to ten. Ten means your love tank is full and overflowing. Zero means you don't feel any love. The child might say, "My love tank is way down on two." You might ask, "What can I do to help fill it?" If she responds with a reasonable request, act on it. But particularly in the early teen years, kids might try to use the situation to manipulate you.
Is there a better way to find out?
You can tell a lot by observing your children's behavior. Often, if a child is acting up, it's because her love tank is low. That's a sign that you need to be more conscious of affirming her with your words, or helping her through acts of service, or spending more time with her?whatever her primary love language is.
When you meet a child's fundamental need to feel loved, you lay the foundation to meet her other needs. If you love your child using her primary love language in heavy doses, things will improve at home. You'll notice a big difference in your relationship.
Copright ©1999 by the author and Christianity Today