Trust vs. Mistrust: Psychosocial Stage 1

The trust versus mistrust stage is the first stage of psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage begins at birth and lasts until your child is around 18 months old. According to Erikson, it is the most important period of your child's life as it shapes their view of the world as well as their overall personality.

Erikson's psychosocial development theory has seven other stages that span throughout a person's lifetime. At each stage, people face conflicts that can result in gaining psychological strength or being left with a weakness.

Trust vs Mistrust in Psychosocial Development
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

Overview

This first stage of psychosocial development consists of:

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Trust versus mistrust
  • Major Question: "Can I trust the people around me?"
  • Basic Virtue: Hope
  • Important Event: Feeding

The Importance of Trust

Babies are almost entirely dependent on their caregivers. So it should come as no surprise that how parents interact with their babies has a profound effect on both their physical and mental health.

Erikson believed that early patterns of trust help children build a strong base of trust that's crucial for their social and emotional development. If a child successfully develops trust, they will feel safe and secure in the world. You're essentially shaping their personality and determining how they will view the world.

Children who learn to trust caregivers in infancy will be more likely to form trusting relationships with others throughout the course of their lives.

Trust
  • Believing in caregivers

  • Trusting that the world is safe

  • Knowing that needs will be met

Mistrust
  • Distrusting caregivers

  • Fearing the world

  • Unsure that needs will be met

How To Build Trust

Babies don't have the language ability to express themselves. Thankfully, they have another effective way of communicating what they're thinking and feeling at all times. It's called crying.

Crying carries an important message. It's the only way babies know how to communicate they want or need one of the following:

  • Affection: Erikson believed that an infant's cries communicated an important message to caregivers. Such cries indicate an unmet need, and it is up to caregivers to determine how to fulfill that need.
  • Comfort: It is important for caregivers to provide comfort to an infant by holding them closely and securely. This provides both warmth and physical contact. Feeding, bathing, and comforting your child helps them learn to trust that their needs will be met.
  • Food: Erikson also believed that feeding played a pivotal role in the development of trust. By feeding an infant when the child is hungry, they learn that they can trust their need for nourishment will be met.

It is also important to ensure that you become familiar with your child's communication style. Noticing these signals, whether they are cries, body movements, coos, or even words helps your child learn to trust that you will listen and communicate with them.

Learning to trust the world and those around us is the key focus of this psychosocial stage of development. By responding quickly and appropriately to your infant's cries, you're building a foundation of trust.

The Consequences of Mistrust

Children raised by consistently unreliable, unpredictable parents who fail to meet these basic needs, eventually develop an overall sense of mistrust. Mistrust leads to feelings of fear, anxiety, and confusion which can make it difficult to form healthy relationships. This in turn can lead to poor social support, isolation, and loneliness.

There have been multiple studies devoted to understanding what goes into the tendency to be trusting, but not nearly as many in the quest to understand why certain people are more mistrustful than others. It's clear that the environment has a big part in both, just as Erikson states.

One study done with female twins, both identical and fraternal, shows evidence that while a trusting personality seems to be at least in part genetic, a mistrustful or distrusting personality seems to be learned from family and other social influences.

A Word From Verywell

The trust versus mistrust stage serves as a foundation of development. The outcomes of this stage can have effects that influence the rest of an individual's life. Because of this, it is essential for parents to provide responsive, dependable care.

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Article Sources
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  2. Sege RD, Harper Browne C. Responding to ACEs With HOPE: Health Outcomes From Positive Experiences. Acad Pediatr. 2017;17(7S):S79-S85. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2017.03.007

  3. Murphy G, Peters K, Wilkes L, Jackson D. Childhood parental mental illness: living with fear and mistrust. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2015;36(4):294-299. doi:10.3109/01612840.2014.971385

  4. Reimann M, Schilke O, Cook KS. Trust is heritable, whereas distrust is not. PNAS. 2017;114(27):7007-7012. doi:10.1073/pnas.1617132114

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