Trust vs Mistrust – the first stage of human development

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him.

Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994)

ImageImage courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Before a child is born, it experiences ever-present security, warmth, nourishment and comfort from within its mother’s body. During this glorious time, there is no fear, no unmet need, no threat and no frustration. Then suddenly, a helpless baby is expelled into a world of bright lights, unfamiliar faces and voices, hard surfaces, discomfort, hunger and thirst. Danger lurks at every turn. No wonder we enter the world screaming.

At this very first stage of a child’s journey through life, it is a parent’s primary responsibility to instill a sense of trust in their little ones; trust in other human beings, in the world that surrounds them, and ultimately in themselves. Long before babies can talk, they are learning. Is the world a safe place or is it full of unpredictable events and accidents waiting to happen?

This stage, which lasts from birth until approximately 18 months, is one that parents do, at least, receive some training for – through antenatal classes, talking with midwives at baby clinics and via parenting magazines that are readily available on newsagent shelves. (Rarely do these publications go beyond the scope of the first few years of childhood.)

Building trust may seem like a daunting obligation because it is so crucial for the healthy development of a child’s personality, and later happiness. Yet, despite the sleep-deprivation and anxiety that almost invariably accompanies early parenting, the initial steps toward helping a child become a trusting, and trustworthy human being are relatively simple. In short, babies need to be given food when hungry and drink when thirsty; they need to be kept comfortably warm but not too warm; they need to have nappies changed regularly; they need both their bodies and their environments to be kept clean; they need to be kept safe from harm and they need to be comforted when they’re in pain, or are lonely or frightened. Some infants need to be rocked to sleep if they’re unable to settle themselves, and all babies, without exception, need the tender loving touch of, and eye contact with, other human beings, particularly the primary care givers.That’s usually mum and dad. And that’s really all there is to it.

It’s worth pointing out though, that in spite of our best efforts, no child negotiates this stage having had every single need met, every single time. There will be times when baby must wait to be fed – perhaps mother is driving or in the middle of grocery shopping. There will also be times when it’s necessary to wake a baby up in the middle of a nap because brothers and sisters need to be picked up from kindergarten or school, or for any number of plausible reasons. Often too, it’s just not possible to know why a baby is crying. Is it colic? Is it teething? A headache or sore throat?

Relax. While it’s true that the care we give our children needs to be consistent, predictable and reliable, if we provide a basically stable environment in which needs are generally met, a child will pass through the first 18 months of life with a basic sense of trust intact. This, in turn, gives him hope for the future and the capacity for healthy relationships.

Sadly, if a child fails to experience trust and is constantly frustrated because his needs are not met, he may end up not only fearful of the world and people in general, but also with a deep sense of worthlessness. As well as having no confidence in the world around him, he will doubt his own ability to influence events, leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This is what we see when we encounter children who have been neglected or abused. We see the fear in their eyes and the dejection in their steps. It may take years to gain their trust, or perhaps we never will. They underachieve and are over-represented in the juvenile justice system because they don’t believe in, or trust themselves. Their self-worth is heart-breakingly fragile and unless they receive a lot of guidance in later years, they carry this mindset throughout adulthood. And perhaps not surprisingly, research on suicides and suicide attempts point to the importance of the early years in developing the primary belief that the world and its people are trustworthy, and that all human beings have a right to be here.

While abuse and outright neglect are extreme examples of parents failing to meet their responsibilities, there are other parents who, through ignorance or circumstances like physical or mental illness, poverty, or being stuck in unsafe environments, may inadvertantly foster degrees of mistrust and low self-worth in their children. The good news is that the capacity for learning and personal growth continues until we die or lose our mental faculties. The bad news, of course, is that it’s very difficult to unlearn the deep-seated fears and feelings of worthlessness that develop as very young children; then to replace these with new habits of trust and a sense of worthiness. It takes a lot of work and consistent support from therapists, friends and significant others.

In third world countries where poverty and starvation are the norm, or in war-torn and disaster torn nations, parents are genuinely unable to provide the consistent and reliable care a baby needs; but in environments where basic survival is assured and the people have been educated, ignorance is a choice. To help you stay informed, I’ll continue this series with my next post:

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt: 18 months to 3 years


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