Gary Chapman: What Your Teen Really Wants from You
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Gary Chapman gets the rollercoaster of parenting teens. Grab his thoughtful ideas to help you evolve alongside your kids in a critical stage of development.
Gary Chapman: What Your Teen Really Wants from You
Dave: Do you know the love languages of our three boys?
Ann: I think so; yes, I think—
Dave: Okay; CJ, number one?
Ann: —CJ’s gifts; no doubt. He is gifts.
Dave: He is still gifts.
Dave: He’s always been gifts.
Ann: I feel like people—that’s an easy one, to give—in terms of like you know their gifts; so it’s just like, “Oh, I’m going to get this for him.”
Dave: I’m gifts, too; I like that. Keep going.
Ann: No, you’re not gifts. I think Austin is time.
Ann: I think he is just like, “Time with you is well-spent.” And I think Cody is words of affirmation. And I think you are words of affirmation.
Dave: I think I’m all five. [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: You know, we’ve got Gary Chapman in the studio today with us, the author of The Five Love Languages. We were just talking: 30-some years ago, it came out, Gary.
Welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Gary: Well, thank you! Always good to be back with you guys.
Dave: I mean, we’re just talking about how that book has changed our life, our marriage, our parenting, and millions of others. And I’m not—
Dave: —tens of millions of others—which is unbelievable that God has blessed it in such a way that it’s sold a bunch in year one; but it’s still selling, more and more each year.
Gary: You know, I’m amazed at how God has used that book. You’re right—every year, it sells more than the year before—because this is one of our deepest emotional needs: the need to feel loved by the significant people in our lives.
Gary: And if you’re married, the person you would most like to love you is your spouse; you know? And that book—the first book, the original—was just talking about the marriage relationship. I think people read it and the lights come on; they realize: “Ohh! That’s what happened. We weren’t speaking the right language.” When couples get that in the marriage, they begin connecting. They fill up each other’s love tank.
Same principle, of course, is true in parent/child relationships. That’s why/you know, I remember a young 13-year-old—he had run away from home; he ended up in my office—he said to me: “My parents don’t love me. They love my brother; they don’t love me.” I knew his parents! [Laughter] I knew they loved him! The problem is: they had never discovered his love language, and they weren’t speaking his love language. They were sincere!—you know, they did love him—but he wasn’t getting it, emotionally. That’s why this is so important in terms of parent/child relationship.
People would ask me, “Well, now, when they get to be teenagers, does their love language change?” I would say, “I don’t think it changes, but you have to learn new dialects of whatever their language is; because what you’ve been doing, they now consider childish.” If words of affirmation is their language, you’ve got to get some new words. You can’t say: “You sweet little thing,”—you know?—“I just love you; you’re so sweet.” [Laughter]
“That’s kid stuff!”—you know?
Gary: “Don’t talk like that to me!” You’ve got to get more adult words.
And the same thing with physical touch. You demonstrated this in the program we were talking before when you said your 12-year-old or your 13-year-old said, “No, don’t, don’t! Don’t touch me.”
When they’re nine and ten, you can go out on the field with them, and you can hug them after the game in front of everybody; they just eat it up. You do that, when they’re a teenager, they go: “Mom, don’t do that,” “Mom, don’t do that!” “Don’t do that,”—you know. [Laughter]
They still need touch!
Ann: And so, what happens, Gary, though—what we do, as parents, we pull away—we stop doing it.
Gary: Yes, yes.
Ann: You’re saying you just have to shift it.
Gary: Absolutely! If touch is their language, they still need touch. You just do it in private, and you maybe give them high-fives instead of hugging them every time.
Another factor with teenagers is: the emotional part of the brain, in the teenage years, is super, super-active; they’re going like a roller coaster. In the morning, if their language is physical touch, you can probably hug them; and they’ll just hug you back. In the afternoon, you try to hug them, and they’ll: “Oh, no! No, no! Don’t do that!”—[Laughter]—because you don’t know what’s happened to them during the daytime, and their emotions are affected by their circumstances. They’ve had a bad day, or something happened today, and they just don’t want to be touched right now. We have to be sensitive to that.
I don’t think the love language changes in the teenage years; but I do think you have to learn new ways of expressing, which I call dialects/new dialects of their language.
Ann: That’s really wise.
Dave: Yes; and you’ve written about it in your latest book, Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager. Let’s walk through those five; you know?
In fact, we had some fun before you came in here, Gary. Our team put together the five love languages that teenagers show toward their parents; I might have thrown in a little help as well. Teens throwback:
-  sarcasm;
-  eye rolls;
- number three, procrastination;
-  know-it-all-ism;
- or  hiding behind my phone. [Laughter]
- Or here’s an extra sixth one—the bonus one is—the dad-joke-unappreciation love language.
Ann: —under-appreciation! [Laughter]
Dave: —under-appreciation, yes! They don’t appreciate our dad jokes anymore. Well, anyway, those are just jokes.
Gary: Yes, I wouldn’t call those love languages; but I would say they’re true. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes! And every parent just heard those and thought, “Yes, yes, yes. How do I get beyond that?”
Dave: “That’s what I get from my teen.”
Dave: But you’ve already talked about physical touch with a teenager is different than with a ten-year-old—
Dave: —or a five-year-old.
Words of affirmation: how would you edit that or have a different dialect as they hit the teen years?
Gary: Yes, I think, in the teen years, you have to use more adult words to them. They need affirming words, but you’re looking for things about them: “You know, I noticed at the ball game the other night, when John missed that shot, you went over there, and you encouraged him. Man, you know he felt badly about missing the shot. That’s good, man, when you give an encouraging word to somebody; that’s just super.”
You look for things that they’re doing that you can really affirm. You wouldn’t have said that when they were a five-year-old, but you’re saying it now. You’re looking for the things that they’re involved in now and affirming them for things that they’re doing now. Or just say: “Hey, I really appreciate you taking the trash out. You know, that was very meaningful to me.” Just look for things around the house that the teen is doing that you can affirm them for. I think it’s just looking for a different kind of words.
Gary: So you’ve got the physical touch; you’ve got the words.
Dave: Now, with the words, how do you balance truth-telling? You know, it’s going to come out negative or harsh; but you know, they’re teenagers. They’re making, like you said—they’re up and down; they may be making some poor decisions—you need to speak not-affirming words at times.
Ann: Let’s say—
Dave: How do you balance that?
Ann: —let’s give an example—let’s say this teenager’s in the kitchen. It feels like, every time they’re in the kitchen, they leave a huge mess—everything’s out—they made a sandwich; the bread’s out.
Dave: That can’t be one of our kids. [Laughter]
Ann: All the cupboards are open; there’s junk everywhere. And then they leave their dishes in the other room.
Gary: Yes; I think what you do is—you affirm them for something that is positive about them—you say, “You know, John, I just want to share this with you: I appreciate the fact that you…”—and you tell them something that you really appreciate about them—"Can I just give you one suggestion that would make you even better?” And then you tell them the thing that you think would make them better about leaving stuff in the kitchen or whatever. I think, that way, you’ve affirmed them.
Like with adults I’m talking to, I’ll say: “If a wife’s going to bring up something that her husband needs to change, tell him three things you like about him first; and then tell him.”
Ann: Does he ever go, “Okay, okay; it’s coming!” [Laughter]
Dave: “You’re on number two.”
Ann: But you’re saying it still helps.
Gary: Yes; it’s exactly what God did! Remember in—I think it’s Revelation 2—the church at Ephesus. God said, “You’re doing great at this, and this, and this.” He told them three things they were doing right.
Gary: And then He said, “One thing—
Dave: [The good]—serving the poor, sharing with the needy—
Ann: —“I hold against you.”
Dave: —and then, “You’ve lost your first love.”
Gary: Yes, yes; it’s a principle. You do that with teenagers, just like you would do it with your spouse; tell them something—two or three things you like about them—and then say, “You know, here’s one thing that would make you much, much better,” or “Something that I would really appreciate...”
Dave: Now, if you say the one thing, and they go, “Hmph! All you ever do is critique!”
Ann: And they eye-roll, yes! [Laughter]
Dave: And you’re sitting there, thinking, “I just said three positives and one negative.” Do you just keep coming back?—
Dave: —to positives?
Gary: First of all, you let that response go. You don’t clobber them on the head for having that kind of response.
Ann: You just ignore it.
Gary: They’re being human; they’re being human, okay? You let that response go.
They’re going to walk away—and they’re going to think about those three things you told them—and they’re going to think about what you asked them to do. Probably, they’ll do it. But if you come down on them, you know, for getting upset, then you’ve lost the three positives.
Dave: Yes, you’ve sort of ended the conversation.
Ann: But I think that’s a great principle in our homes—we’ve said this before—“But start looking for the good.”
Ann: That really makes an impact.
Gary: Yes, absolutely; absolutely.
Dave: And you know, I was just thinking—we’ve already talked about physical touch—but I know, as a dad of three sons, when they were little boys, physical touch felt easy to me.
Dave: You know, I didn’t grow up with a dad that was even in my home, so I didn’t really have that; but when they were boys, I’m jumping in the bed with them; we’re crawling around on the floor.
Ann: You’re wrestling.
Dave: We’re on the trampoline.
Dave: I’m hugging them; I’m kissing them on the cheek.
I remember, as they became men—you know, 14/15—and you got close to their cheek, and there was a beard starting, it felt awkward.
Gary: Yes, yes.
Dave: It’s like, “Oh!” And it wasn’t even on them as much as on me: “Oh, do I hug them like I did when they were kids?”
Dave: Well, it’s going to be different.
Ann: And especially—
Dave: But I just felt myself pulling back. Man-to-man, it’s more of a—“Hey!” fist-bump, which, obviously, is okay; but they still want physical touch; right?
Gary: Yes, just in the right place—
Gary: —and the right time; yes.
I think here, since you mentioned that, a lot of fathers of teenage daughters will pull back from hugging them or kissing them on the cheek, because they’ve heard so much about sexual abuse; and they don’t want to do anything wrong here.
Gary: You know, they pull back.
If their language is physical touch, I say to those fathers: “If you don’t give them hugs, they’ll find an 18-year-old boy who will. Don’t draw back; don’t draw back.”
Now, certainly, the sexual abuse thing—there’s no place for that in a relationship—
Dave: Right, right.
Gary: —but giving them hugs—particularly, if this is their language—giving them hugs and giving them a kiss on the cheek—they still need that from you.
Ann: What was your daughter/was it awkward as she started to mature/as she was becoming a woman? Do you remember that phase?
Gary: You know, her language was quality time, and I really focused on that. I did hug her and kiss her, but not as often as I would have if I’d known physical touch was her thing. She would always want to take walks with me after dinner; that was her favorite request: “Dad, can we take a walk after dinner?”
Ann: That’s so sweet.
Gary: And we would walk through the neighborhood and talk, you know, about everything. She loved it! And I would take her out; once a month, I would take her to breakfast by herself. Of course, I did the same thing with my son, even though that was not his language; but she looks back and says, “You know, Dad, those breakfasts that we had together, and the walks that we took together, that’s what I remember. That’s the highlight of what I remember.”
And kids will remember that. And if you don’t speak their primary love language, they’ll also remember. They’ll remember: “Dad, you never touched me; you never hugged me.” It’s important to learn the love language of a teenager.
Ann: And how would we do that with a teen? If we’ve never heard any of this—we have a teenager; this is new—how do we go about finding what it is?
Shelby: Yes, that’s a good question. Teens can feel like an enigma sometimes; can’t they? Well, Gary Chapman will help us out in just a minute.
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Alright; now, how can parents better understand their teen’s love language? Here’s Gary Chapman.
Gary: Three simple ways; one is: “To observe their behavior: how do they respond to you and other people?”
- If you hear them affirming other people verbally, then that’s probably their love language.
- If you see them giving gifts, then that’s probably their language.
- If you see them spending quantity time with someone else, then that’s probably their language.
Look at their behavior.
And then, secondly: “What do they complain about most often?” The complaint reveals the love language. If they complain that—“Dad never comes to my ball games,” “Dad’s never here to talk with me,” “Dad never takes a walk with me,” “Dad never takes me fishing,” “Dad never…”—they’re complaining that they don’t have any quality time with their dad. You see, we get irritated with their complaints; but they’re really giving us valuable information. Listen to their complaints.
“And what do they request most often?” See, my daughter was asking me to take walks with her. My son never would walk with me; he said, “Walking is dumb! [Laughter] You’re not going anywhere. If you’re going somewhere, drive.” He would request: “Dad, can we shoot some baskets after dinner?” And the way we shot baskets, we would touch each other in the process of it; you know?
Ann: Yes, yes.
Gary: You put those three things together; you can pretty well figure out a teenager’s love language. You can also go online and take a free quiz/the teenager can take a free quiz; it’s at 5LoveLanguages.com—the number “5”—5LoveLanguages.com. There’s a quiz for married couples; there’s a quiz for single adults; and there’s a quiz for teenagers.
Ann: I remember one of our sons, when he was a toddler, he was so clingy! I needed to hold him while I’m making dinner. I had to hold him while I’m doing things. But he would constantly, as he was whining—you know that whining?—and I’m trying to get dinner; but he would constantly say: “Mom, play with me!” “Mom, play with me!” “Mom, play with me!”
You know, I’m thinking, “I don’t have time to play with you! I have all kinds of things to do.” But after reading your book, I remember thinking, “I just need to give him my focused attention, even if it’s for 15 minutes.”
Ann: So at a certain time of day, I would say, “Let’s spend 15 minutes together—just me; just you—and let’s just play.” It was amazing how that changed the atmosphere. I would give him that time, and then he was content.
Ann: He would play on his own; he’d do other things, and he wasn’t nearly as needy: of needing me or having me hold him.
I thought that was really helpful: to see what they’re complaining about, or what they need.
Gary: Yes, absolutely.
Dave: What about special gifts or gifts? You know, some of us, as parents, would say, “Every teenager—that’s all they want!—[Laughter]—buy them stuff!”
But obviously, you know that’s not true; but how do you respond to a teenager, where that’s their love language?
Gary: Yes; well, I think this love language, gifts, can be tricky—because there’s no question about it—in our culture, teens are driven for things. I say to the parent: “If their love language is gifts, don’t think that you have to give them everything they ask for. You’re the parent; you give them gifts you think would be good for them. That’s what God does for us. God doesn’t give us everything we ask for; I’m grateful for that. He gives us what He thinks is good for us.”
Don’t let the teenager, you know, manipulate you and say, “Well, if you really love me—you know this is my love language—you would buy me…” You know, don’t let them manipulate you. [Laughter] When they do that, you say, “Honey, I love you too much to give you that right now. I don’t think you’re ready for that. Maybe in another year or two, but you’re not ready for that right now. I love you too much to give that to you.”
Don’t feel like you have to give them everything they ask for; but I do think what you want to do is find out things in which they are interested. If they’re into sports, for example, and there are some cards that you know they collect, you keep your eye out for cards that would be interesting for them—or whatever their interest is—you keep that in mind.
They don’t have to be expensive things. If gifts is their [love] language, you can pick up a stone in a city parking lot and give it to a 15-year-old boy, and say, “Hey, man! I found this today, and I thought about you. Look at the colors here, man!” [Laughter] If gifts is his [love] language, when he’s 23, you’ll find that stone in his dresser drawer. He’ll remember the day you gave it to him. It’s just things that [say]: “I was thinking about you, and I wanted you to have this”; you know?
Ann: One of our sons’ love language is gifts. He remembers every single Christmas gift!
Ann: I don’t remember anything! I don’t remember what I got two days ago, but he remembers every gift. As we started discovering this, he was a teenager; I think he was turning 16. Dave and I were going to be out of town for his birthday; we felt so bad.
But he’d been wanting a game system—this video game system—for ages! We had finally saved some money; we thought, “This is going to be the year we’re going to give it to him.” We had a pro-athlete—because Dave was the chaplain for the Detroit Lions, who lived close to us—we had wrapped this game system up in a nice little package, and we had Luther Ellis go to the door, where CJ was in class, in high school, knock on the door, and say, “Happy Birthday, CJ!”—and handed him this gift!—[Laughter]—in school/in class; the teacher let it happen. He will never forget that.
Gary: Oh, yes!
Ann: Because he liked gaming, and he’d been waiting for a long time to get this game system.
Ann: He still talks about it!
Dave: Well, I mean now, at Christmastime, gifts will show up from Amazon®, or whatever, on our front porch. I’m like, “What is this?” She goes, “Oh, CJ already bought his Christmas present from us.” [Laughter] They just come to our house so we can wrap them and then give them to him. [Laughter]
Ann: But he still/we still can get him things—and you’re right—it could be something that’s not that expensive. But something that we’ve watched him, and we know, “This would be meaningful.” And he’s so grateful!
Ann: Where, other kids might look at it and think, “Oh, thanks”; but for him, it’s a big deal.
Gary: Oh, yes, yes. It’s huge; it’s huge.
Dave: Well, what about/we haven’t talked about acts of service.
Gary: Acts of service.
Dave: It’s the only one, I think, we have left.
Gary: Yes; acts of service is doing something for the teenager that you know they would like for you to do. You know, we do this when they’re children. You have to speak this language when they’re little, because they can’t do anything.
Gary: You know, so we do everything for them. As they get to be teenagers, we also speak this language by teaching them to do things for themselves. You take their interests—if they’re interested, for example, in cooking—then you spend time teaching them how to cook; that is a huge act of service.
Our granddaughter, at the age of 14, could cook a full meal. And from that point on, she cooked every one of her birthday cakes, because she wanted to decorate it her way; you know? [Laughter] So teaching them to do things for themselves.
Listen, I encourage parents to think in terms of: “What would I like my children to be able to do by the time they’re 18 years old?” Because, at 18, typically, they’re going off to college, or they’re going to join the military, or they’re going to get a job—you know, we hope they’re going do something. “By the time they get to be 18, what would you like for them to know how to do?”
Let the teenager tell you things that they would like to learn how to do. Maybe they’d like to learn how to change a tire on a car. Well, they’re not going to learn that at the university or in the military; you know? Whatever their interest is, teach them to do these things.
You know, I was speaking to a group of professional football players, some time ago, and around the table, it was just four or five couples. One of them said, “Dr. Chapman, you know, here’s the thing: we’ve been thinking about what we’re going to do when we age out of football, because the only thing we know how to do is play football. Ever since we were kids, that’s all we’ve known how to do.” Every one of them chimed in, and they said the same thing.
One of them said, “I’m teaching my son how to run a lawnmower because I never learned.” [Laughter] This language is spoken—not only by doing things for the teenager; and certainly, there would be things you could do for them—but also, teaching them to do things that they would like to learn how to do for themselves.
Ann: We’ve been around our three-year-old grandson a lot the last few days. We both know this about him: if we have a job to do, he wants to be right with us. So we said, “Hey, Bryce, do you want to wash the car with us?” He’s ecstatic!
Gary: Oh, yes.
Ann: You know, he’s helping us; and he’ll say this: “What else can I help you with?” “What else do we need to do?” “Do we have some jobs to do?” Kind of watching that, would you say he probably has—
Gary: Yes, I would guess that’s his language; yes.
Ann: Yes, because Jenna, his mom, said, “If I need a little time for myself, I’ll say to Bryce, ‘Do you want to do the dishes?’” And he’ll stand up there for 15 minutes, doing the dishes, fully content! [Laughter] So happy!
That’s a really good clue if you find your kids loving chores around the house—
Ann: —or helping you do the laundry. That could be, maybe,—
Gary: Yes, absolutely.
Ann: —their love language.
Gary: Absolutely; absolutely.
Dave: Listening to you talk about that inspires me. Of course, my kids are older, and so are yours; but if I’m a young parent, or even have kids coming into the teenage years, I should be/want to be the expert on my kids.
Dave: No teacher/no friend should know them better than I do.
Dave: And that’s like you said earlier: opening your eyes, watching; and then, taking action, based on what you see.
Dave: That’s a great step for a parent.
Gary: You know, parents can learn the child’s love language by the time they are three- or four-years-old by observing their behavior. My son’s love language is physical touch. When he was that age, I would come home in the afternoon; he would run to the door, grab my leg, and climb all over me. [Laughter] He’s touching me, because he wants to be touched.
Gary: Our daughter never did that! At that age, she would say, “Daddy, come to my room; I want to show you something.” She wanted quality time; she wanted my undivided attention. It’s there very early. For parents of young children, the love language is there very early; and you can discover it simply by observing their behavior.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Chapman on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Now, tomorrow, when Dave and Ann Wilson will be back, they’re going to be joined, again, with Gary Chapman to demonstrate the influence our character has on our kids, our church, and others around us. That’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time
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