Many of us will have heard of The 5 Love Languages, which states that there are five different ways to express and accept affection: words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, physical touch, and quality time. But what specifically are some ways to tell your child you love them without explicitly saying so?
Romper spoke with psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem, to better understand how we can let our children know through actions, and not just words, that we love them. "The love languages are not wrong," she tells Romper via phone. "But [they] aren't enough, because there are a lot of other loving things that we do."
Of course, you can always just tell your children you love them — who doesn't appreciate being told they're loved, right? — but love does and should extend far beyond language. "There are many different ways to love and different ways count for different people," Kennedy-Moore explains. "Whether it's our child or our partner, we definitely want to think about expressing love in a way that matters to them."
In its best moments, parenthood is an opportunity to find new ways to love someone every single day. In its worst moments, you're covered in poop while someone is screaming at you and you can't tell if it's really happening because you're hallucinating due to severe lack of sleep. But, hey, let's focus on the good stuff for a minute. Here are just some of the ways a parent might convey love and nurturing to their child without explicitly saying "I love you."
Empathize With Them
"Fundamental to being a good parent is being able to see the world through [your child's] eyes," Kennedy-Moore says.
Look, sometimes kids are ridiculous. They have outlandish, impractical ideas about literally everything, but they're learning and whatever they think and feel is real to them. You have to meet them where they are in order to get anywhere with them. And when you do, it's a way of showing them you love them enough to try to understand their point of view: their fears, their passions, and what's important to them.
"Touch is our most basic way of comforting and connecting," explainsKennedy-Moore, but she urges parents to follow their child's lead on what kind of touch they appreciate. Some kids might be snugglers and revel in physical attention from a parent. Others might be far too busy for such things, but appreciate a big hug at the end of the day. Others might be most satisfied with a gentle back rub or shoulder squeeze.
"Sometimes we love our kids in a way they don't want," Kennedy-Moore says. Things like telling them to be careful or brush their teeth or go to bed on time. Adults don't like being told what to do and children are no different, but left to their own devices children make poor choices that lead to poor long-term outcomes. Candy for every meal is just not a great idea — it leads to tummy aches and vitamin deficiency — but how's a kid to know that? We love them enough to be the proverbial bad guy.
"Aim for small connections," Kennedy-Moore says. Sometimes it's the little things that show our kids we love them. A bedtime routine, for example, or a "coming home from school" tradition (maybe sitting down and talking about their day over a snack), are all small gestures that can be powerful moments of intimacy and connection.
Kennedy-Moore says "moments of reunion," can be particularly meaningful. "Give them your full attention when you're reunited," she says. "The little, 'How was your day, dear?' conversations can count for more [than grand gestures]."
Letting Them Do Things Themselves
Helping our children come up with solutions to their own problems, from shoe-tying to an argument with a friend, can be difficult on several levels. From a parent used to doing everything for their baby and finding it difficult to get out of that pattern of behavior, to a Type A parent who knows they can resolve things quicker and more easily than their child, to a parent who doesn't want to see their child sad or stressed. But the truth is that providing guidance but not resolution is a deeply loving act.
"We are showing faith in their ability to cope," Kennedy-Moore says. "We can coach and comfort but we're trusting them that they can solve it."
Who doesn't enjoy gifts, right?! They're fun! But while gift-giving can be a loving (and appreciated) gesture, don't worry if you can't give your child everything they want. "It's OK for kids to learn they can want something but not necessarily have it," Kennedy-Moore says.
Again, not likely something to be appreciated, but a "No" can be a loving act.
"No, you can't watch a rated-R movie."
"No, you can't jump off that cliff into the lake."
"No, I won't let you sleep over your friend's house until I meet their parents."
"[This is] love based on our adult wisdom and perspective which our children are unlikely to thank us for," Kennedy-Moore says.
Spending Time Together Doing Something Together You Both Enjoy
While "quality time" can certainly take the form of a family vacation or a visit to an amusement park, the truth is that "quality time" doesn't have to be anything extravagant.
"[Parents think] they have to make it long and elaborate and with kids that's pretty much a guarantee that it's not going to go well," says Kennedy-Moore, voicing the experience of every parent who's ever attempted a special day with a child only to have that very same chid experience a demoralizing meltdown half-way through. "Kids remember how it feels to be around you," she continues. "The best compliment we can give our kids is 'I enjoy your company' and mean it."
So set yourself up to bring that compliment to life by sharing your hobbies with your children or letting their passion rub of on you and learning about theirs.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Acknowledging and talking about your child's feelings allows them to build an emotional vocabulary database that will enable them to identify how they're feeling and communicate it more effectively moving forward. Kennedy-Moore cautions parents to be very wary of showing love in this way before jumping to another expression of love, which is trying to fix what's bothering them. "We don't move on to problem-solving until we've acknowledged the child's feelings," she says.
Taking Care Of Yourself
"A loving act might be getting a baby sitter and going out with your friends," Kennedy-Moore explains. "Because you'll come back refreshed. It's good to miss your kids a little."
Self-care and childcare need not be mutually exclusive. One can feed into and inform the other. Taking care of your child's parent (read: you) is not, as some might think, selfish, but responsible, considering, and loving.