Every Child Deserves a Full Love Tank

Top view of four children of mixed races each holding a marble heart in hands. Conceptual of equality and friendship.

The 5 Love Languages for Families Raising Children with Disabilities Guides Parents in the Language of Love

When Dr. Gary Chapman’s love language book for children came out, I read it with interest. I became a fan of the love languages when his book for couples first came out. My husband and I had determined which of the five languages — words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and gifts — were our primary ones. His was physical touch, mine was acts of service, and we had learned to speak one another’s language to keep our love tanks full.

We used ideas from Chapman’s book for children for our two kids, and I also used them at school with my elementary students. The concept worked well with most kids, and our classroom climate improved, too.

However, I noticed that the love languages weren’t as effective with students who had experienced significant trauma, including those in the foster care system. I was also at a loss about how to determine the love language of students who were non-verbal or had developmental delays.

Dr. Chapman and I address those concerns and more in “Sharing Love Abundantly in Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages for Families Raising Children with Disabilities” because we believe every child deserves a full love tank. The book was released in August and is filled with strategies to communicate love to every member of the family — spouses, children with special needs and disabilities, and typical siblings. It also explains how extended family and friends can use the love languages to care for overwhelmed parents, and how parents and guardians can appropriately inform medical professionals and educators about a child’s love language.

The first challenge for parents is always determining a child’s love language. In this excerpt from “Sharing Love Abundantly,” three of the more than 40 parents interviewed for the book share what they’ve learned about determining the love languages of their kids. Hopefully their ideas will help you fill the love tanks of the children in your care, too.

Determining Your Child’s Love Language

Once parents understand these benefits, the challenge is to recognize and decipher the sometimes cryptic clues given by kids with special needs and disabilities. Parents who were asked how they determined their child’s primary love language described the processes they used. Those descriptions were strikingly similar. Whether the child was verbal or nonverbal, developmentally delayed or physically disabled, behaviorally challenged or compliant, parents first used trial and error followed by keen observation.

For couples who were familiar with the love languages when they became parents, trial and error was natural and organic. They used all five languages with their children from birth. They observed how their children responded to each language as they grew and developed.

Parents who implemented the languages when their children were older took the more intentional approach outlined in “The 5 Love Languages of Children.” They used one love language at a time. For a few weeks they observed and often jotted down their child’s responses in a journal before moving on to another language. Once all five had been tested, the child’s responses revealed their primary love language.

The responses of children with verbal communication deficits can be harder to interpret. Such was the case for the parents raising a daughter who lives with autism. She is verbal, but finds it difficult to express her likes and dislikes with words. So, her parents asked themselves three questions as they observed their daughter. What calms her? What motivates her? Where does she choose to spend her time? Using those criteria, they discovered that physical touch is her primary love language, followed by words of affirmation.

“It took a while, and the main criteria was what calmed her,” her mom recalls. “She loves to be squeezed, and she loves it when we take off her shoes and rub her feet. Not with lotion, but squeezing them.”

Three Questions for Determining a Child’s Love Language

  1. What calms my child with special needs?
  2. What motivates my child?
  3. Where does my child choose to spend time?

Another set of parents describes how they identified their daughter’s top two love languages, even though she is nonverbal and has autism. They adopted her knowing that her first 16 months in an orphanage meant she could have attachment and bonding issues. They understood that their daughter needed time and space to form connections and develop trust on her own terms.

In her first months with her new family, the child cried inconsolably at night. She slowly started to accept comfort, but at arm’s length. Her mom recounts the clues that led them to identify their daughter’s primary love language as physical touch, followed closely by words of affirmation.

“Eventually, she became fiercely and intensely physical. Her hugs were so strong and tight that it felt like she would pop my head off. She has never wanted us to sit and read to her, she has zero interest in things and gifts, and she could care less what we do or don’t do for her. But if we want to see her light up like fireworks on the Fourth of July, we spend time holding her or dancing, hugging and cuddling. Add a few words of encouragement on top of that, and you will see a beautiful, ecstatically beaming child,” her mom shared.

Sometimes, however, even the most observant and intentional parents aren’t able to pinpoint the primary love language of a child with severe and complex special needs. Such is the case for the parents of a 12-year-old daughter with developmental delays and complex communication needs, as well as feeding and mobility issues. Because their daughter is nonverbal, her parents don’t know what her love language is. Sometimes they think it’s quality time, but they aren’t sure because she needs someone with her to do almost everything. They’re tempted to dismiss gifts as her language because she throws toys on the ground, but that behavior could be caused by sensory issues. Sometimes they think physical touch isn’t her language because she pushes her parents away, but her response might be a reaction to having her personal space invaded. She smiles proudly when they praise her for doing something good, so they wonder if her language is words of affirmation.

This family’s dilemma will resonate with many parents. Hopefully, their solution will, too. Since their daughter’s primary love language is elusive, they speak all five languages with her. When she reaches for them, they touch her. If she wheels up and wants to engage, they give her all their attention. While performing almost constant acts of service, they explain what they are doing and why. If she reaches for a wipe when being changed, they thank her for her help. Her mom offers a final piece of advice: “You can do just about anything to demonstrate all five languages. Just do it all with love.”

Excerpted from “Sharing Love Abundantly in Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages for Parents Raising Children with Disabilities” by Gary Chapman and Jolene Philo (©2019). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used with permission.

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