Trust vs. Mistrust: Psychosocial Stage 1

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The trust vs. mistrust stage is the first stage of psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage begins at birth and lasts until a child is around 18 months old.

According to Erikson, this is the most important period of a 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 either result in psychological strengthening or weakening.

Trust vs Mistrust in Psychosocial Development
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 


This first stage of psychosocial development consists of:

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Trust vs. 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, the ways that parents interact with their babies have a profound effect on a child's health.

Erikson believed that early patterns of trust influence a child's social and emotional development. If a child successfully develops trust, they will feel safe and secure in the world. According to his theory, a parent essentially shapes their child's perception and future relationships.

However, it's important to remember that trust and mistrust exist on a spectrum. People aren't either completely trusting or completely mistrusting.

For example, there will be times that a baby's needs go unmet. A healthy amount of mistrust of our environment as infants prepares us as adults to be cautious and self-protective when we need to be.

The key is that an infant's trustworthy relationships and interactions outweigh, for the most part, their untrustworthy ones. According to Erikson, this will give them a better sense of how to trust themselves and the world around them.

Erikson's Trust vs. Mistrust Stage

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

  • Believing in caregivers

  • Trusting that the world is safe

  • Knowing that needs will be met

  • Distrusting caregivers

  • Fearing the world

  • Unsure that needs will be met

Trust vs. Mistrust Examples

The following are examples of what builds trust between an infant and caregiver:

  • An infant's caregivers create a safe environment in which the infant feels protected.
  • A mother or father is attentive to their baby's needs (the baby is fed regularly, given affection consistently, etc.).
  • A parent reassures their infant when the infant is scared.

An infant learns to depend on their caregivers, and in turn, learns that the world is safe and will take care of their needs.

The following are examples of what builds mistrust between an infant and caregiver:

  • When an infant cries out, their caregiver isn't available to meet their needs.
  • A mother or father is inconsistent in feeding their infant.
  • A caregiver doesn't comfort the infant when they are scared or uncomfortable.
  • The caregiver allows the infant's environment to become unsafe, and as a result, the infant feels unsafe.

How To Build Trust

The primary way you can build trust with your baby is to respond when they try to communicate with you. Because babies can't use words to express themselves, they use nonverbal strategies to communicate what they're thinking and feeling at all times.

Crying is one of the most common strategies babies use to communicate with their caregivers, and it carries different meanings. Usually, babies cry to let you know that they 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.

Every baby communicates differently, so becoming familiar with your baby's communication style is the key to success at this stage. Noticing and responding to these signals, whether they are cries, body movements, coos, or even words, helps them learn to trust you and the world around 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.

Consequences of Mistrust

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

Children raised by consistently unreliable, unpredictable parents who fail to meet their basic needs eventually develop an overall sense of mistrust.

Children and adults with low levels of trust may be more likely to:

Mistrust can cause children to become fearful, confused, and anxious, all of which make it difficult to form healthy relationships.

Research shows that being raised in an untrustworthy environment may actually make a child more trusting of untrustworthy people. Researchers believe this is due to an adaptive mechanism that makes it possible for a child to form an attachment bond to an untrustworthy caregiver.

For instance, studies have found that children who were previously in foster care homes where they were mistreated were more likely to display behavior such as sitting in a stranger's lap or walking off with a stranger, whereas children who weren't in foster care homes did not display this behavior.

Consequences of Over-Trusting

Interestingly, being overly-trusting is linked with the same negative consequences as being under-trusting.

One study of school-aged children found that those with very high and very low trust levels tended to internalize problems and perceive a lack of acceptance among their peers.

Ultimately, a child must experience trust, along with some degree of mistrust, in order to learn how to trust in themselves and their relationships as an adult.

Learning to Trust

If you experienced an unsafe environment or untrustworthy relationships as an infant, you may face difficulties with trust as an adult. But your childhood experiences don't have to define you.

It is possible to overcome childhood experiences and learn to trust.

Research has found, for instance, that children who were neglected while in institutional care experienced significant improvements in their social and behavioral functioning once adopted into nurturing families.

The following are ways that may help you on your journey of shifting your mindset into a more trusting one:

  • Show compassion: Showing yourself and others compassion and understanding may be helpful in improving trust. Compassion is a tool that serves to remind us: We are all human, and we all struggle at times.
  • Try mindfulness: Mindfulness practices such as meditation can teach you how to feel your emotions without judging them.
  • Process feelings: Journaling, confiding in a trusted loved one, and letting yourself cry are just a few ways of emotional processing. You may find that a counselor or therapist is a valuable resource. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on helping people reframe old, limiting beliefs into new, proactive ones.
  • Consider your environment: When healing from trauma, try to make your environment as safe as possible, and interact with people who support you.

A Word From Verywell

The trust versus mistrust stage serves as a foundation of development. The outcomes of this stage can influence adulthood.

Of course, while it is essential for parents to provide responsive, dependable care, there's no need to despair if you experienced mistrust as an infant. Human beings are adaptable, and it is possible to rebuild your sense of trust in yourself and in others.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Reimann M, Schilke O, Cook KS. Trust is heritable, whereas distrust is not. PNAS. 2017;114(27):7007-7012. doi:10.1073/pnas.1617132114

  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. Pitula CE, Wenner JA, Gunnar MR, Thomas KM. To trust or not to trust: social decision-making in post-institutionalized, internationally adopted youthDev Sci. 2017;20(3):10.1111/desc.12375. doi:10.1111/desc.12375

  5. American Psychological Association. Basic trust versus mistrust.

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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.