Photo by Andrae Ricketts on Unsplash

Who doesn’t love the topic of love? Especially mothers who have an endless amount of love for their children. I personally love celebrating Valentine’s Day because I am a mother, but explaining what love means to a child can be challenging. We say “I love you” the moment the child is born, but what does that mean to the child? Do they thoroughly understand the love you have for them? What about the love you can have for other people or pets or things? Do your children understand how that love differs?

I spoke with Marisha Mathis, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks, a mental health company offering in-person and online therapy services nationwide. Mathis, who specializes in parenting, depression, anger and coping skills, offered guidance on how we can explain love to our children this holiday. 

Marisha Mathis of ThriveWorks. Courtesy photo

How do you explain love to a child? Can you give me examples of how you would explain love to children of different age groups?

I would begin by explaining that love is related to the heart and emotions. If a child is on the younger side, you may prefer to switch out emotions for the term “feelings.” It could further be explained that love is felt in the heart toward something or someone else. Examples could be how a parent loves their child, parents love each other, or a person loves their pet. Identifying favorites can also be a means to help explain love such as a favorite sport, team, hobby, stuffed animal/toy or person.  Younger children may understand that love is a natural emotion that is expressed in various ways. I would go one step further in explaining to older kids that it is an emotion that is felt and expressed in various ways based on the types of relationships such as platonic, romantic or familial, etc.

How do you explain the differences in the type of love? For example, the way we love our friend or our pet compared to our spouse or partner?

To explain the different types of love, provide definitions with examples. Platonic is love between friends or perhaps toward pets; romantic love is what spouses or partners experience. It may be helpful to use terms such as eros or agape depending on the child’s age. Eros is usually associated with romantic lovers as it typically includes physical affection and gratification. Agape relates to unconditional love and is not self-satisfying or selfish. It may also be helpful to use examples of relationships that the child knows such as grandma and grandpa, lifelong friendships and friends of the family.

How do you explain the act of giving out Valentine’s Day cards to classmates?

Love is important and everyone needs to feel it. Sharing Valentine’s Day cards is a way kids can express love toward friends. Although it is not required to give everyone a card, a parent could explain how feeling loved could make a classmate feel happy or cared about, while excluding a classmate could be hurtful to those that they do not get along with and do not wish to share cards with. It if is mandatory for everyone to receive a card, a parent can explain that it is OK to show love to everyone but it does not mean that there has to be friendship. This ensures that their child is able to maintain their own personal thoughts, feelings, and boundaries.

How would you explain how love evolves or changes over time? For example, how would you explain it to a child whose parents may be divorced?

Establish that there are different types of love and that different types of love are OK. Explain further that the types of love can change. Two people may begin a relationship platonically and that evolves into romance or vice versa. Explaining that the types of changes are sometimes what happens when there is a divorce. Two people felt love for each other romantically but the love changed to another form causing two people to separate. It does not mean that they do not love each other any longer. The ways that they love each other have changed. For example, “The love that mom and dad share has changed. We still love each other but we believe that it is better that we love each other as friends instead of husband and wife.”

What are some overall tips parents should remember during these discussions?

  • Consider maturity while deciding how much to explain or divulge
  • Provide age-appropriate examples. Consider using your relationships depicted in your child’s favorite shows or movies to help with explanations. 
  • Allow for questions and ask your child questions to understand what they may think or how they may feel
  • Remain calm during feedback if there are differences in opinions

Aside from the above, Mathis reminds parents that “children and adolescents have a lot of self-awareness and understanding. Do not assume that they will not understand.”

How are you sharing your love with your child this Valentine’s Day? Tell us in the comments.


San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.