Through the Eyes of a Catholic Toddler

Aug 17, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Most Catholic parents (like non-Catholic parents) misunderstand their toddlers. And this lack of understanding and attunement causes many problems between Catholic parents and children that may manifest immediately (in the “terrible twos”) or later in the parent-child relationship.

A little perspective…”

A little toddler’s eyes see the world very differently than the eyes of an adult. Very differently. A toddler’s perspective is marked by immaturity. Because toddlers are little.

Let us just start with the physical, bodily aspects of toddlers and their parents. Visualize this. The average 24-month-old is about 34 inches tall and weighs about 28 lbs. The average 30-year-old man (her father) is about 5’ 10” tall and weighs about 197 lbs.

Now let us put those size differentials into perspective. If Daddy, at his current average height and weight, were in the two-year-old’s position, his father figure (proportionally) would be 12 feet tall and weigh about 1400 lbs.

Imagine getting into an argument with that father figure, who could easily throw you across the room. Imagine that giant of a father all dysregulated, out of control and angry at you, with his huge eyes and gaping mouth, yelling at you in words you don’t yet understand, reaching out to grab you. How would you react? How could you not be frightened?

As an aside, Andre the Giant (aka the giant “Fezzik” in the movie “The Princess Bride”), the famous wrestler who struck fear into all other pro wrestlers’ hearts, was a mere 7’ 4” tall and 520 lbs. – he is a puny runt compared to the proportionate sizes of father figures we are discussing.

And those size differentials matter. Psychologist Nancy McWilliams wrote “Men may easily underestimate how intimidating they are to their young female children; male bodies, faces, and voices are harsher than those of either little girls or their mothers and they take some getting used to. A father who is angry seems particularly formidable, perhaps especially to a sensitive female child. If a man engages in tantrums, harsh criticism, erratic behavior, or sexual violation he may be terrifying.”1

Toddlers’ dependency

Adults also fail to appreciate at a gut level how existentially dependent toddlers are on their parents. It’s very clear that toddlers depend on their parents for their physical needs, food, shelter, clothing. But toddlers also depend on their parents for so many other needs — emotional needs, relational needs, intellectual needs, developmental needs, and spiritual needs.

And what’s more, toddlers have needs that go way beyond what parents can provide – needs for other people to love then and needs for their spiritual parents, God the Father, and Mary our Mother, as we discussed in the weekly reflection from two weeks ago, Who’s Your Daddy? Confusion Over Our Primary Parents.

Toddlers’ perceptions and thinking

Toddlers’ perceptions and thinking are very concrete. They lack the capacity for abstract, conceptual processing. Rather, they learn through direct, immediate experience of their senses — what they see, hear, touch, taste. Their cognitive processes are more impressionistic and holistic, much more image-based, not mediated by words, because toddlers cannot yet symbolize their experience into words very well. Thus, their experiences are processed in a pre-verbal way, unlike the more mature cognitive processes of adults.

Toddlers’ evaluative processes are organized around simple, dichotomous categories – black vs. white, good vs. bad, precious vs. worthless, emphasizing contrast without nuance. Toddlers’ thinking also tends to be very egocentric – they are the centers of their own little worlds. They lack the capacity to enter and understand others’ internal experience, others’ internal worlds.

And Catholic parents often fail to appreciate this, in part because it is inconvenient for parents that toddlers perceive and think in immature ways. Frustrated, stressed parents can feel that it would be so much more helpful if toddlers could just think and act like adults!

Idealization

In their dichotomous approach to life, toddlers idealize and devalue other people. In fact, idealization and devaluation are primary lenses through which toddlers see their parents.

Idealization is the internal, psychological process of attributing overly positive qualities to another person (or thing) – looking at the idealized person through rose-colored glasses, seeing only the ideal, desired good in the other person. An example of idealization is when teenagers get infatuated with their romantic interest – that other person is wonderful, amazing, beautiful, intelligent, virtuous to the highest degree.

For toddlers we can see this in how they often are so expressive in affection, and to some degree even in words – “You are the bestest Mommy, I love you Mommy, Mommy is very, very good.” And My Daddy is the strongest man in the world. He can beat up your daddy.”

Toddlers see their parents as gods

Because of how proportionally large parents are, toddlers’ dependency, their perceptions and thinking, and the phenomenon of idealization, it’s not hard to see why toddlers see their parents as larger than life, as godlike. It can be very difficult, especially for parents who are out of touch with being small themselves, to appreciate how godlike they seem to their toddlers. Research has shown that children’s experience of their parents influence their God images, in both positive and negative ways. Children generalize from their experience of Daddy and Mommy, transferring the qualities of Daddy and Mommy onto God. I address the issues of God images in episodes 23 to 29 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, starting with episode 23, titled Sinning, God Images and Resilience.

Devaluation

The flip side of idealization is devaluation. Devaluation happens when the toddlers sees Mommy or Daddy in the most negative light, as fundamentally flawed or bad, exaggerating negative aspects. You can hear the toddler’s devaluing voice in statements like “You are a bad mommy. I wish I had a good mommy, a mommy like Stevie’s mommy.”

Toddlers’ separation and individuation

And in the midst of this, toddlers are going through the phase of separation and individuation from Mom and Dad. They are in the process of discovering that they are separate persons. This is both exhilarating and terrifying for the toddler. On the one hand, they are discovering all this power – the toddler writes his tricycle by himself, he is mastering potty training, he can walk and run and play, and he is realizing he has his own opinions, emotions, likes, and dislikes. On the other hand, being separate from Mom and Dad, navigating being different from the parents brings up a new set of developmental challenges and fears – What if Mommy and Daddy don’t want me, what if they abandon me? Now that I’m no longer fused and one with them, I could be left behind for being bad or unwanted.

The main way that two-year-olds practice separating and individuating is by opposing their parents. “Mommy wants me to wear my green socks but I want to put my blue socks on” – in that way the toddler is discovering himself by practicing not being Mommy. The toddler’s wishes are not Mommy’s wishes. In the sock disagreement, toddler is practicing being a separate person.

Much depends on the parents’ response to the toddler…

In the reflection from two weeks ago, Who’s Your Daddy? Confusion Over Our Primary Parents, I wrote that Catholics greatly underestimate how much impact parents have on their children. With toddlers, so much depends on how parents react to their toddlers’ efforts at separation and individuation.

It is so vitally important that Catholic parents be able to weather the idealization and devaluation cycles of their little ones without becoming destabilized. It can hurt mommies with unresolved shame so much to be devalued – to be called a “bad mommy” by their toddler. Some parents, often fathers, need their children to idealize them – there is no room for anything other than idealization from the child.

In the process of oscillating between idealization and devaluation, toddlers are setting a foundation for more nuance and finer distinctions in the future. They need permission from their parents to be able to idealize and devalue them, or the toddlers will get stuck developmentally.

Thus, one goal of successful parenting is to go through a process with the toddler of non-traumatic de-idealization that does not harden into ongoing devaluation and rejection of the parents. It is helping the toddler to see you as the parent more accurately through you seeing the toddler more accurately and being a good enough parent to help the toddler through the development stage.

Parents: That means doing your own human formation work. Why? So that you do not get destabilized by the intensity of toddler emotions – and so that that the toddler is not parentified, needing to take care of you in your own needs.

We as Catholic parents do not want to make it any harder for our toddlers and our older children to love us than it must be. I think a main reason for God to command honoring your father and mother as the Fourth Commandment in the Decalogue, is that it does not necessarily come naturally to children, especially children who are devaluing their parents.

Identification with Catholic parents

One overarching goal of Catholic parenting is that our children come to identify with us. What is identification? The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines identification as: “the process of associating the self closely with other individuals and their characteristics or views. This process takes many forms: The infant feels part of his or her mother; the child gradually adopts the attitudes, standards, and personality traits of the parents; the adolescent takes on the characteristics of the peer group; the adult identifies with a particular profession or political party. Identification operates largely on a nonconscious or preconscious level.”

Catholic children are much more likely to identify with their parents if they have had consistent experiences of their parents being unattuned and loving to them, weathering the process of idealization and devaluation well, without condemning the children for it, or expecting the children to be more mature than they possible can be. It helps Catholic children so much if their parents understand that the “terrible twos” are about separation and individuation, not as much about rebellion and disobedience.

The bottom line: If Catholic children identify with their Catholic parents, they are much more likely to continue actively practicing the Catholic faith, in part because of more positive God images.

Counteridentification with Catholic parents

The opposite of identification is counteridentification. Psychologist James Tobin defines counteridentification as “the common unconscious motivation in pre-adolescence and adolescence for the child to seek to be different from, and often opposed to, caregivers — usually the parents. How the child seeks to be different from the parent may cover a range of qualities and characteristics, be it some aspect of the parent’s personality, intellectual pursuits, behavior tendencies, social, political or cultural beliefs, even hobbies.”

In my clinical experience, counteridentification is a major contributor to adult children’s decisions to leave the Catholic faith of their parents.

If a parent is hard on a toddler, unattuned, with significant deficits in loving toddlers when they are frustrating – if the parent was overcontrolling in the dance of individuation when their child swung between idealization and devaluation — or if the parent was not attuned enough to be idealized in the first place, and that parent is closely identified or allied with Catholicism – then the adult child is more likely to reject Catholicism as part of counteridentifying with the parent. It is also a way, often unconsciously, for the child to wound the parent in return, to give payback in revenge.

Parents struggling with attunement and understanding their children

A major reason why parents struggle to attune with and understand their children is because of deficits in their own human formation — often resulting from shortfalls in the parenting they received when they were little. So much of the problem is not as much on a spiritual level as it is on the natural level, the level of natural human formation.

It is never too late to work on your own human formation. That is what we do in the Resilient Catholics Community. In the RCC, we take on the issues in our own human formation, in a way that’s informed by the best of psychology and child development, and grounded in an authentic Catholic understanding of the human person. You can check that out on the RCC landing page for more information.

Questions for reflection

You can reflect on these questions for your own life as a toddler, and for others’ lives, including your children, as is helpful. Even though you are unlikely to have full, explicit memories of being two years old, you still carry implicit, experiential memories.

  1. What was going on in family life at age 24 months? What year was it? What were the family stories told of that time? What kind of impact might the events of that time have had?
  2. As I listen in to myself, to different parts of me, what messages am I getting about that time of life? What emotions, thoughts, body sensations, images, memories come up?
  3. What might I not be hearing from within about that age, the second year of life? Is there anything that I am noticing I’m avoiding? Can I be curious about that?

Hope for the future

In last week’s reflection, The Real Reason Adults Leave the Church, I promised to offer some considerations about how Catholic parents of adult children who have left the Faith can help those children come back. And I offer more than the good, standard spiritual advice to pray for them, go to Confession and the Eucharist, and offer up sacrifices. I also want bring in human formation and the natural realm.

Some parents may be worried that the ship has sailed, that their adult children are not coming back to the Faith. I want you to know that there can be healing. Especially if parents can humbly own and admit their own contributions to the child’s counter-identification with them. It can help adult children, still caught in their preverbal, unprocessed implicit memories to make sense of their experience. A humble parental approach to owning responsibility can open doors of communication, and it can soften a child’s counter-identification with the parent and with the Faith. There is no guarantee that the adult child will respond by running back to the Church – each one has free will – but it is still very good for the parent’s soul and psyche.

Warm regards to you in Christ and His Mother

Dr. Peter

P.S. The primary root natural-level obstacle for parents to connect with their children is shame. Check out the 46-minute Episode 37 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled The Silent Killer Who Stalks You from Inside to learn so much more about the impact of shame on so many psychological and human formation problems.

P.S.S. And if you want more information about how adverse childhood experience make it difficult to love, check out our most recent Interior Integration for Catholics episode, number 96, titled I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens us Against Being Loved.

P.S.S.S And, as always, please spread the word about Souls and Hearts and these weekly email reflections. Forward this to anyone you think might benefit, and please keep us in your prayers. Thank you.

1McWilliams, Nancy (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (2nd Ed.) Guilford Press, pp 318-319.

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