You’ve heard of the Five Love Languages, and you may have read our trending blog about The Five Original + The Seven New Love Languages. We explained in our first blog that Gary Chapman’s original Five Love Languages book has been around since the early 1990s. It’s been adapted to suit audiences young and old, gay and straight, single and married, and so many more. Basically, if you’re a human being with the capacity of love, (which barring some deep issues that this blog is not here to address;) we all have a primary language or two through which we tend to feel most loved. Today we want to talk specifically about the love languages for those mysterious little aliens we all have been… teenagers.
To say parenting is hard is probably the understatement of the century. Whether you’re a #boymom, #girldad, or you’re blessed with an equally rounded brood, I’m sure there have been more days than you can count that you’ve thrown your hands in the air asking yourself, “what the hell am I doing?” We get it. The worst part is, we were all teenagers once. So, you would think we could figure this thing out, but everything is so new now. Everything is different. Teenagers are dealing with different problems, bigger problems. So, we’re left wondering how we can show them love. How can we let them know, I mean really know, that we love them and we’re here for them no matter what – even when their go-to is to come home and shut their bedroom door, only coming out to eat until it’s time to leave the next morning? Are they hearing us? Do they believe us? Do they know they can talk to us? What does IKYFL mean anyway?
We may not have all the answers. We definitely don’t know what all of the texting slang means. We had to Google that one, too. But, as far as communicating in their love language, we can help you out there. It’s not so different from yours. The key is to work around those normal teenager issues like independence, anger, discipline, consequences, and even failure.
Today’s Teenagers are So Different
Gary Chapman, Ph.D is a renowned author, speaker, and counselor who has been talking about Love Languages for over 30 years. In his book, The Five Love Languages of Teenagers, he starts by addressing the elephant in the room, today’s teenagers. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a young, cool parent or if you’ve been in this parenting game for years – if you have teenagers in 2023, the math just isn’t in your favor. The world was a different place when you were a teenager. Don’t worry, it was different for us, too. Technology, communication, pressure, bullying, social media… we just didn’t have to deal with these things as kids. Kids today are having to learn things and figure out life lessons much younger. They are being exposed to elements of reality that we were granted at least a few more years of maturing before being smacked upside the head with.
In the first couple of chapters of the book, Chapman addresses a few more ways teenagers have changed over the years. He talks about how until the 1940s, “teenagers” didn’t really exist. People lived and worked on their parents’ farms until they were married. Independence didn’t come until they left their parents’ home. They were expected to contribute at home and then get married and start a family. That’s just how things were. Then, the Second World War and industrialization happened, and people started gaining more independence over their lives.
How Teenagers Are the Same Then and Now
He also talks about ways teenagers are the same then and now. You know the ways and I’m sure you’ve started seeing each of them in your own teens. They’re thinking for themselves. Their bodies are changing. They’re starting to struggle with their own morality and value systems. Of course, they’re thinking about sex. They’re also thinking about the future and really starting to consider what they want the rest of their lives to look like. These are all universal truths that haven’t changed and probably won’t ever change for teenagers. We can hold tight to these expected similarities.
We can also hold tight to a survey that Chapman mentions in the book. It asked teenagers, “Who has the greatest influence on your decisions? Parents or friends?” While daily decisions are influenced by friends, the major ones, like what kind of person they want to be and what they’re going to do with their lives are more influenced by their parents.
Teenagers, much like adults, have the need to feel connection, acceptance, and nurtured. Before diving into the five love languages of teenagers, Chapman talks about how parents can show their teens this type of “emotional love” that’s so vital for keeping their love tanks filled. He talks about the importance of being present and communication. When addressing the need for acceptance, he also addresses how much harm rejection can cause for a teenager. Quoting anthropologist Ronald Rohner, who has studied rejection in more than one hundred cultures, he believes that rejection is a “psychological malignancy that spreads throughout a child’s emotional system, wreaking havoc.” This type of rejection often comes when comparing siblings with one another.
The Five Love Languages of Teenagers
Words of Affirmation
When it comes to showing your teenager love with words of affirmation, the hardest part is keeping criticism to a minimum. It’s so easy to be a cheerleader for younger kids. Your four-year-old finally realized that L-M-N-O-P is five different letters? You will brag about that achievement and have them say their ABCs for you and everyone you meet for a week. That child’s love tank will be filled to the brim. However, by the time they reach adolescence, they start moving into that rebellious behavior a little more, even the best of them. They’re trying to establish independence. That’s OK! This is natural.
It’s natural to feel the need to correct our teenager’s behavior. As parents, we can get a little critical though. As Chapman explains it, for a teen whose love language is words of affirmation, parents “replace affirming words with condemning words, accepting words with words of rejection, and in so doing they not only empty their [child’s] love tank, they instead fill it with resentment.”
Chapman explains that the good news is there is always time for course correction. Parents must eat a little bit of humble pie and admit to themselves and their children that they are learning this parenting thing as they go along. We all are! Parenting is hard! Tell your kids that you’re sorry for the ways you’ve screwed up and any hurtful words you’ve said. Explain that you care about them and that you love them, but that you’re not perfect. Tell them that you want to help them through their teenage years and that you plan to be there for them when they need advice. Then, of course change your behavior. Criticize less. Affirm more. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about how to discipline later. This isn’t a free pass for kids to get away with whatever they want.
Physical touch is probably the toughest of all the love languages when it comes to teenagers. We’ve all been there, trying to give our teenager a hug and they push us away with an irritated, “Ugh! Mommmm!” My first piece of advice is to not let that get you down. You’re not alone and your teenager is normal. Remember, teenagers are not children anymore. I know that seems like a no brainer on the surface. But, as parents when we look at that 6’2” lanky, pimple-faced kid, all we see is our baby who wanted night-night cuddles like two days ago. Teenagers need independence, especially physical independence. Chapman reminds us to ask ourselves, “Does my proposed touch threaten my teen’s sense of independence? Does it enhance positive self-identity?”
So, how do we show love in the form of physical touch? If your kid’s love language was physical touch as a child, it is still physical touch as a teenager. But you’re going to have to tip toe through the tulips for a few years to fill that love tank. Aren’t teenagers fun? Like the ancient Proverb says, “there is a time for everything… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” Chapman explains that as a solid rule, teens don’t like to be hugged or touched in anyway when they’re angry and probably not in front of their friends. He points out the importance of paying close attention to body language. If your daughter is standing across the kitchen with her arms folded, she probably isn’t interested in a hug. If you son comes home and marches straight to his bedroom and slams the door, it might not be a good time for snuggles.
On the other hand, success is always a great time for physical touch. Did
your kid just win his basketball game? Group hug! Did he get a good grade on his Chemistry exam? High freaking five, man! Did your daughter finally nail that parallel parking? Pick her up and swing her around in celebration (you know, once the car is in park)! The same can be said for failure as for victories. Teenagers are humans, despite their behavior on occasion. And sometimes they just need their mom or dad to hold them when they’ve had a bad day.
Quality time is a tough one especially for moms. Often times moms try and force quality time with their teenagers. They plan vacations, activities, game nights, whatever…and then tell their kids that they are required to attend. This is something moms have seen friends post on social media and wish they had with their family. Here’s the thing… it cannot be forced. Teenagers are kind of like cats when it comes to quality time. You have to let them come to you. If you try and force it, even if it’s something amazing, teenagers will hate it just to spite you.
Chapman offers a few key pieces of advice when it comes to quality time. For conversations, make sure that you truly listen to your teen. Just because you’re older and you were once a teen, don’t expect that you know what they’re going to say. Before you share your perspective, ask them if they even want to hear it. They might not care what you have to say. Don’t be offended by that. They may just need to vent to someone who won’t judge them and then work it out for themselves; independence, remember?
As far as hanging out with the family, let’s just face it, teenagers would rather hang out with their friends. This isn’t just your teenager. This is something that sociologists refer to as the teenager’s peer group. Dr. Eastwood Atwater says that peer groups play four primary roles in a teen’s life.
- Transition into adulthood by offering social-emotional support group
- Provides standards that the teenager can use to judge their own behavior and experiences
- Provides opportunities for developing relationships and social skills
- Provides context in which the teenager can develop his/her sense of self-identity
So, even though your teen may seem like they never want to spend quality time with you, it’s not that they don’t. They do. You just have to let them come to you. Include them in plans for the family. They’re growing up. Ask them to plan the next family game night. Give them that independence. They want to spend time with you, just on their terms.
Acts of Service
Chapman says, and I think we can all agree wholeheartedly that, “parenting is a service-based vocation. The day you decided to have a child, you enrolled for long-term service.” So, you would think that this love language would be an easy one for parents and is for most. The part where a lot of parents get it wrong is twofold.
First, they use service as manipulation. Chapman points out that service must be freely given to be love. If you tell your teenager that you’ll drive them to the mall if they clean their room, this does not communicate love. It’s a tradeoff. It’s a currency. While finding your teenager’s currency is a different topic for a different day, it’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about filling their love tank and helping them feel loved, accepted, and nurtured. Love cannot be earned. It should be given freely. Chapman explains that “the system of trying to change your teen’s behavior by promising to do something you know she wants to do” is called behavior modification – and isn’t an act of service. This method of parenting was popular in the 1970s. It’s not the worst style of parenting, but if we’re talking strictly about expressing love, it’s not the route you want to take.
Secondly, parents worry that if they do everything for their kids, they’ll never learn to do things for themselves. This is a valid concern, but it’s where teaching comes in. Sure, you can do your teen’s laundry for them. But you can also teach your kid how to do their own laundry. Teaching is a great act of service. Ask them things they’d like to learn. Teenagers are sponges for knowledge. Providing this guidance not only speaks their love language of acts of service, but it also teaches them how to serve others effectively.
There are lots of questions to ask when it comes to gift giving with teens. You would think that this would be simple. Who doesn’t love receiving a gift? There is just a bit of nuance involved with giving a gift to your teenager. Some questions Chapman talks about in the book are things like…
- Are there strings attached?
- Do you expect something in return? (Like good grades)
- Is the gift generally/societally expected? (Like paying for college)
- Is the gift in the teen’s best interest? (Like a car when they turn 16)
- Are they interested in the gift? (Will they even like it?)
- When/where should it be presented? (Ceremony is important with gifting.)
- Is it a “counterfeit gift”? (Are you giving it to replace love elsewhere?)
The secret to showing your teenager love through gift giving is to make it more about the giving than it is about the gift. You can give big, expensive gifts, or you can give a $2 candy bar. The idea is to let them know that you were thinking about them. If your teen’s love language is in fact gift giving, you’ll know because when asked how they feel loved, they’ll point to the things they’ve been given, big and small.
Discovering your Teenager’s Primary Love Language
It’s no secret that teenagers are moody. What they like one day can change the next day. How they respond to your displays of love and affection this week can be completely different from how they respond next week. Chapman addresses this more in depth in his book. He talks about how your teen’s natural fluctuating moods can be one reason that discovering their love language might be difficult. Another reason can be that in their teen years, they may lean more heavily on their secondary love language. While a person’s primary love language doesn’t change from childhood into adulthood, they can lean more heavily into their secondary love language throughout adolescence.
Another reason mentioned throughout the book is that as a parent, you may just need to learn to speak a new dialect of your teenager’s love language for a few years. Their primary love language may have always been words of affirmation. So, telling your son Nicholas, “Great job today, Nicky!” may have always worked. But as a fourteen-year-old, he shrugs you off and ignores your praise and you can’t figure out why. Now that he’s all grown up (as most fourteen-year-olds see themselves), you can still show him love with words of affirmation, you just need to change your dialect a bit. Try something more like, “I appreciate the hard work you put in today, Nicholas.” You’re saying the same thing, just with a different dialect of the words of affirmation love language.
When Your Teen Fails
We definitely encourage you to grab a copy of Chapman’s book at the very least to give the last chapter, Loving When Your Teen Fails, a read. All teens will fail. They are human after all. They’re learning this life thing as they go along, too. They can fail morally. They can fail to meet our expectations. Chapman provides a few steps, not necessarily for discipline, but rather for redemption when your teenager encounters failure.
- Don’t blame yourself.
- Don’t “preach”.
- Don’t try to fix it.
- Give your teenager unconditional love.
- Listen to your teenager with empathy.
- Give your teenager support.
- Give guidance to your teenager.
Our babies, no matter their age, are going to let us down at some point and I know that these steps are much easier typed in a blog than they are lived in everyday life. The ultimate goal is to remember that as parents our job is to put ourselves out of a job; to raise healthy, responsible, loving adults.
You’ve got this!
How Claibourne Counseling Can Help
We work with teens and parents everyday here at Claibourne Counseling and are here to help you work through finding your teen’s love language and more. Click to schedule a consultation and find the right therapist for your teen today.