Family Life

Tight-lipped teens and the language of love

Dear Dr. Karyn,

My 14-year-old daughter hasn’t told me she loves me since she was a little girl. We seem to have a good relationship. She shares all kinds of information about what is going on in her life and occasionally she makes me these really beautiful cards, but I’m concerned that maybe we’re not as close as I think we are. I really need affirmation and it makes me feel sad that I don’t hear it from her. Am I overreacting?

Dear parent,

A great question! The topic of love is one that comes up all the time at our leadership and counseling center. My sense from your e-mail is that you and your daughter have a wonderful bond; after all, it speaks volumes when teens are forthcoming with information to their parents. However, I sense you and your daughter might have different love languages. Let me explain.

According to Gary Chapman, author of “The Five Love Languages” (one of my favorite 10 books), there are five key ways people express their love. All five ways are important and valued differently by each other. After reading all five, ask yourself to rate the languages from most to least important.

The first love language is time. In other words, we show love to one another by spending quality time with them.

Second is physical touch or physical affection. Giving hugs and kisses.

The third love language is affirmation. People who value this love language like to hear “I love you” and any word of encouragement or affirmation. It sounds like this one may be your number one love language.

The fourth love language is acts of service. People who value this language (sounds like your daughter) like to show their love through their actions. They may not say, “I love you,” but they will show it to you by making cards, doing the laundry, cleaning their room, etc.

The final language is giving gifts.

It is important that parents know and identify with these five love languages. Find out what love language you value. Next, figure out what love language your teen values. A trick to figuring this out: often, but not always, people give what they actually want back. So if you’re daughter is giving acts of service or making cards, she might actually appreciate acts of service higher than affirmation. If you can’t figure out what her language is, have the courage to ask her. The best way to pour into any relationship is to do our best to speak the other person’s language, not just the language that comes most naturally to us.

Tight-lipped teens

Dear Dr. Karyn,

I don’t know how to get my son to open up. If I ask him questions he will answer, but it is always with one word. He will tell me when he has a girlfriend and when he breaks up with her, but never tells me more unless I ask. His friends seem to tell me more. Can you please advise?

Dear parent,

There is no question that girls and guys communicate differently! There are always exceptions to each rule, but I’ve certainly found a significant difference in gender communication. Often, when I ask teen guys questions, they give one word answers or the standard, “I don’t know.” I’ve learned from them seven potential reasons why male teens give one-word answers:

• They don’t really want to talk about it with you.

• They really don’t know the answer and therefore will give one word answers or say, “I don’t know,” because they are embarrassed.

• They know the answer, but they don’t know the words for how to communicate it.

• They feel uncomfortable about the topic.

From my experience, No. 1 and 2 seem the most popular. If it’s No. 1, I’d recommend you look at your communication with your son and do a personal evaluation. What do you think you’re doing that may discourage your son from talking with you? Are you too critical? Don’t show yourself enough self-respect? This will take some reflection time.

If it’s reason No. 2, I have a couple of strategies for you. First, look at your past successes, when he really opened up to you. Where were you? What time of day was it? Generally, guys talk much more openly when they are “talking sideways,” i.e. playing a sport or in the car. By reducing eye contact this often helps them reduce their anxiety and encourages them to talk. So look for these golden opportunities. Second, try asking specific questions instead of open-ended questions. If you ask him how his day was, he’ll likely respond with a one-word answer. Instead, be specific. Ask him:

• “What was the best part of your day and the worst part of your day?”

• “What qualities do you most appreciate and like about your girlfriend?”

• “What is your greatest pet peeve?”

• “Who do you feel most connected to?”

• “What can I work on to improve our relationship?” (Teens like this one)

Realize, as well, that building relationships is a process. Try to walk before you try to run. If you come on too strong and intense, it will only push your son further away.

Dr. Karyn Gordon is one of North America’s leading relationship and parenting experts. She is a regular contributor to “Good Morning America,” founder of dk Leadership, best-selling author of “Dr. Karyn’s Guide To The Teen Years” (Harper Collins), and motivational speaker to a quarter of a million people. Visit her at and on Twitter: @DrKarynGordon.

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