How to fill your child’s ‘love tank’


As parents, we do our very best for our children, actively giving them everything we believe they need… and more. So, the idea that their ‘love tanks’ may sometimes be running low is not only hard to believe, but it flies in the face of the love we express for them daily through our words and actions.

The 5 Love Languages

In a book written by Gary Chapman, called The 5 Love Languages (Moody Press, 1997), the author describes how there are five main ways of expressing and experiencing love (Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch).

Each of us (including our children) prefers to express and receive love in one or maybe two of these ways. If we can find a way to ‘talk’ the right love language, well then our needs and the needs of those we love are easier to fulfil.

This book is very true, and a later companion book called The 5 Love Languages of Children (Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell M.D.), notes that a child’s preferred ‘love language’ only becomes noticeable from around age five. 

What about babies and toddlers?

Interestingly, when a baby is born, the one area of the brain that is most developed and able to process information is the area regulating touch. And, because little babies and toddlers live on a very physical level, for the most part they experience life and understand the world through their bodies.

Babies and toddlers also naturally don’t yet understand abstract concepts like giving and receiving gifts; the underlying value of spending time together; the meaning of words; and the intentions behind acts of service. So it makes sense that young children across the board initially prefer the language of physical touch when it comes to expressing and experiencing love and affection.

What is an ’empty love tank’?

Simply put, a person suffers from an empty love tank when he doesn’t feel loved and secure in the relationship he has with the important people in his life.

How do I know when my child’s love tank is running low?

1. Your little one becomes very clingy.

2. Your little one becomes more demanding than usual, especially when you’re in the middle of something, like a phone call, shopping, or cooking dinner…

3. Your little one cannot deal with simple frustrations (like someone taking their toy) and have a meltdown as if their emotional foundation has been rocked when they don’t get their way.

4. Your little one is finding it exceptionally difficult to deal with a ‘big change’, such as a new school, teacher, sibling, moving house, a divorce or any other major life changes.

This is the season of empty tanks!

At this time of year, the Practica Programme Advisory Service commonly receives many calls from Practica Parents needing advice on two areas – a need for discipline-related information, and issues related to new day care arrangements (new crèche, new teacher, new nanny etc).

In both instances, there are many underlying causes for the problem, but an empty love tank is often one. Typically, a shift from the fun and closeness of the holidays back to the business of everyday life can make your child feel emotionally insecure. And parents often don’t communicate their love for their children in a ‘language’ that their children can understand – the result being that their children don’t have the emotional reserve to deal with small frustrations, which leads to discipline problems, or big changes, which leads to clinginess.

The value of Touch Therapy

The good news is that you can help to solve two incredibly taxing parenting challenges with one simple remedy: fill your child’s love tank. And how is this done? Well, while filling somebody’s love tank may involve different things for different people, Touch Therapy is by far the most effective way to communicate love and security to young children.

When using Touch Therapy, you are literally communicating to your child that he is deeply loved… When done correctly, this basic touch-technique tells your child what countless of words and actions can not…

Because Touch Therapy helps to fill your child’s love tank, the end result is usually a child who is more emotionally grounded, secure and resilient. So it is also a great method to use when starting sleep training; when a new sibling arrives; when your child is struggling with frustration; when your child is being verbally or physically aggressive; and when your child is sick.

Commonly, parents find they interpret their child’s negative behaviour with more insight and empathy once they are aware of the concept of an empty love tank. However, beware of responding by doing Touch Therapy within a few minutes after an ‘incident’, in an effort to soothe your child, because you may inadvertently be rewarding the negative behaviour. In fact, Touch Therapy works best as part of a routine, for instance, every morning and every night at roughly the same point in your waking-up or bedtime sequence of events.

Touch Therapy – Step by Step

You can do Touch Therapy when your child is lying down, or even sitting on your lap. Using gentle but firm and rhythmical pressure, hold-and-squeeze your child’s arms, starting at the shoulders. Slowly and repeatedly hold-and-squeeze all the way down his arms until you reach his wrists. At this point, press your child’s hands together and squeeze them gently but firmly. Now, do the same with your child’s legs, starting at his hips and working towards his ankles, ending off by gently but firmly squeezing his feet together. You can repeat this slow and rhythmical ‘massage’ for at least five minutes, and it makes the whole experience more enjoyable for your little one if you sing and recite rhymes to the rhythm of the movements of your hands. Try to make as much eye contact with your child as is comfortable for the both of you, and remember this is a special time, so the atmosphere should ideally be calm, relaxing and free from distractions for these few minutes.

As your child’s personality unfolds and develops between the ages of five and eight, he will find himself drawn more towards one of the five love languages as described by Gary Chapman. But it is good to know that for the rest of his life, touch will remain a calming and reassuring experience. And this is true not only for your children, but for you as an adult as well. There is nothing more effective than a good firm hug every now and again to make us feel as if our very existence is solid and worthwhile.

If you’d like to read more about why touch is so magical, please refer to our previous post called “A Mother’s Touch”.

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

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