Did you know that your first 18 months are perhaps the most important period of your life? This crucial early stage of life is the foundation on which we learn to trust or mistrust the world around us, at least according to renowned psychologist Erik Erikson’s ‘stages of psychosocial development’. It has a major influence on how we relate to ourselves and others as we grow up and enter adult relationships.
Trust vs mistrust is the first stage of Erikson’s theory, and will be the main focus of this article. We will touch on the other stages, but the goal here is to help you gain an in-depth understanding of trust vs. mistrust, and how you can help your young children successfully complete their first stage of psychosocial development.
What is Erik Erikson’s ‘Stages of Psychosocial Development’?
Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist who developed a theory known as, ‘stages of psychosocial development’, in collaboration with his wife Joan Erikson throughout the mid 20th century. Erikson is famously known for this theory, as well as for coining the term ‘identity crisis’.
Erikson’s theory suggests that there are eight distinct stages in the psychosocial development of an individual. Though Erikson studied with Freud, his views diverge from Freud’s. Unlike the Austrian psychoanalyst, Erikson believed that the individual continues to develop psychosocially until death.
The Eight Stages of Erikson’s Theory are:
- Stage 1: Trust vs mistrust (0 – 1.5 years old)
- Stage 2: Autonomy vs. shame (1.5 – 3 years old)
- Stage 3: Initiative vs. guilt (3 – 5 years old)
- Stage 4: Industry vs. inferiority (5 – 12 years old)
- Stage 5: Identity vs. role confusion (12 – 18 years old)
- Stage 6: Intimacy vs. isolation (18 – 40 years old)
- Stage 7: Generativity vs. stagnation (40 – 65 years old)
- Stage 8: Ego integrity vs. despair (65+ years old)
What are the basic virtues?
At each psychosocial stage, a basic virtue is learned, or not learned, depending on the success or failure of the stage in regards to personality development. The virtues learned become character traits, which the person can call upon to process and deal with a crisis.
In stage 1, trust vs. mistrust, that target basic virtue is hope. If the child learns that they can trust the word to meet their needs, they learn to have hope when faced with a crisis, such as needing affection or food. If their needs are not met, and they have learned mistrust, they may lack a deep visceral sense of hope as they grow older.
The Basic Virtues of Later Stages are:
- Stage 2: Autonomy vs. shame – Will
- Stage 3: Initiative vs. guilt – Purpose
- Stage 4: Industry vs. inferiority – Competency
- Stage 5: Identity vs. role confusion – Fidelity
- Stage 6: Intimacy vs. isolation – Love
- Stage 7: Generativity vs. stagnation – Care
- Stage 8: Ego integrity vs. despair – Wisdom
Each psychosocial stage plays a crucial role in the social and emotional development of an individual. While all stages are important, the first stage – trust vs. mistrust – is perhaps the most important. This stage begins at birth, and continues until the child has reached around 18 months.
According to Erik Erikson’s theory, successful completion of each stage, which means that the target virtue has been developed, promotes a healthy personality and increases the person’s chance of success in later stages.
Failure at any stage comprises an individual’s ability to successfully complete the next stage, leading to an unhealthy personality and negative or low sense of self.
Understanding Stage 1: Trust Vs. Mistrust
The trust vs. mistrust stage suggests that babies in their first 18 months learn how trustworthy their primary caregiver, and by association the world around them, is through their met or unmet needs.
Since babies cannot verbally communicate their needs, they use non-verbal communication to get them met. They cry or coo to let their caregivers know that they need something, such as affection, comfort, or food.
If their expressions of need are met with care and compassion, they develop a sense of trust. They believe that the world around them is oriented toward their well-being.
If their needs are not met, they develop a sense of mistrust. They may come to believe that the world does not care for their well-being. Whichever perspective they take will inform how they think and behave in later stages of development.
Care, Attunement, and Trust
A parent attuned to their child’s signals will satisfy their needs by rocking, holding, or feeding them. Attunement and met needs teach the child that they can trust the parent and the world around them to meet their psychosocial needs.
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.” – John Joseph Powell
If a parent fails to attune to their child’s needs, and neglects to support their psychosocial development at this stage through affection, comfort, or food, the baby learns that the world is inherently untrustworthy.
Why is Trust Vs. Mistrust Important?
The belief that the world is an untrustworthy place has a significant influence on how the baby will view and relate to the world around them as they grow up. If a child learns mistrust, their adult relationships will be colored as such.
If they learn trust, they will find it easier to trust and rely on others when they get older. They develop a sense of security and confidence that their physical and psychological needs will be met throughout their lifespan.
Success when it comes to trust vs. mistrust, means that the baby has learned hope, promotes positive thinking and a success-oriented outlook throughout the later stages. Of course, a baby will not develop a completely trusting or distrusting view of the world.
Naturally, there is a balance. There may be times when the baby wants affection or food but the parent is not available. Still, as long as the balance between trust and mistrust leans more toward trust, hope will be developed. If the balance leans more toward mistrust, in place of hope the baby will find fear and despair.
What are the Consequences of Mistrust?
If a parent or caregiver’s care was inconsistent, unpredictable, or unreliable the parent may have failed to meet their child’s basic needs, leading them to develop a sense of mistrust and a lack of hope, explains Dr. Gillian Murphy of Western Sydney University in Issues for Mental Health Nursing.
There are several reasons why a parent’s care would be inconsistent or unreliable. Some of the most common causes of inconsistent parenting are mental illness, trauma in the parent, addiction, or abusive behavior.
Murphy’s research involved adults who lived with parents with mental illnesses, the majority of whom reported that their experience in childhood led them to mistrust others, in particular the parent.
Mistrust leads to fearfulness, confusion, and anxiety, all of which impact the child’s ability to form healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships in adulthood. As a result, the mistrusting child may fail to receive and accept social support when they get older, which hinders the quality of their relationships and leads to isolation and loneliness.
Isolation and loneliness are two leading causes of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and addiction in adulthood. Thus, it is essential that a child learns how to trust in their infant years. Otherwise, their physical, psychological, social, professional and legal health and well-being are in jeopardy.
How to Help Your Child Develop Trust and Hope
According to Erik Erikson, “hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired.”
Do not underestimate the importance of trust. It is the foundation of a healthy, happy life. A lack of trust, especially in infancy, can damage our health and well-being.
If you’re a parent and you want to make sure that your child or children develop a healthy and basic sense of trust and hope in you, themselves, and the world around them, then check out the tips and advice we have outlined below.
1. Understand Attachment
Research tells us that the attachment style a child develops in their early years is highly formative. Attachment theory, developed by British psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, points to four different attachment styles observed in children.
The four attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment
- Insecure avoidant
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style. Attachment researchers found that babies or developing children who develop a secure attachment style go on to have beneficial and healthy relationships in later life.
The mid 20th century was a time of innovation and progression in developmental psychology. Erikson’s work coincided with Bowlby and Ainsworth, all of whom came to understand and teach the world about the importance of the infant years and the quality of parenting.
2. Get to Know Your Infant’s Signals
Secure attachment develops when parents attune to their infant’s needs with love and compassion. For the benefit of your child and your relationship with them, get to know their cues and signals, and respond to them in time. At their cues of hunger, feed them. As you do so, be gentle with them, make eye contact, and speak to them softly.
At their cues for affection and comfort, give them hugs, kisses, massages, and plenty of skin-to-skin contact. Since verbal communication is not yet possible, responsivity to their cues and physical affection are your best means of communicating how much you love and care for them.
Try your best to respond to your infant’s cries. Of course, they’re going to cry a lot, and you may not be able to immediately respond to each cry, but over the course of their infancy it’s important to be more present than absent when your baby is crying.
3. Take Care of Yourself
If you don’t take care of your physical, psychological, and social health and well-being, it might deteriorate over time. This is not only detrimental to your own life, but also to that of your child. As mentioned earlier, mental illness and other potentially traumatic experiences in childhood can create a sense of mistrust, which in turn may create in your child an insecure attachment style and lack of self-esteem.
If you feel like you struggle with trust and would like to speak with someone, an affordable and convenient option to find a suitable therapist is Online-Therapy where you can speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home.
The Bottom Line
Trust versus mistrust is the foundational stage for healthy development and successful completion of later psychosocial stages. A negative outcome during this crucial early stage of life increases the likelihood of more negative outcomes later in life.
Successful, positive outcomes in the first stage of Erikson’s theory improve a child’s chance of healthy development and inter and intra-personal success. As such, it is important for parents and caregivers to be as attuned and responsive as possible when it comes to their infant’s needs.
If you would like to learn more about Erik Erikson the stages of psychosocial development, you can check out this article, or read Stephanie Scheck’s scientific essay The Stages of Psychosocial Development According to Erik H. Erikson.