Wednesday, July 21, 2010
TRUST VS. MISTRUST
“Trust me.” Call me skeptical, but I hate it when people say that. Trust must be earned. And once it’s earned, the trusted person has to behave in a trustworthy manner, or the trust will be lost.
Trust is the foundation. It under-girds everything that happens in our lives. We need to learn trust very early in life. Having the capacity to trust makes us capable of successful relationships of all types, and is the foundation of our sense of self.
Erik Erikson theorized that people go through a number of psycho-social stages in life. During each stage, we have a “dilemma” to solve. The very first stage, according to Erikson, happens from the moment we’re born until around our first birthday. He calls this stage Trust vs. Mistrust.
During our infancy, we are helpless, and depend on someone for everything we need. This gives us many opportunities to discover whether our world is trustworthy and safe, or if it is a scary and dangerous place, full of people that are not to be trusted. When infants are treated with love, warmth, and respect, and when their needs are met consistently and promptly, they easily resolve their first psycho-social dilemma by making the decision to TRUST.
Then, around the time they are one year old, they are ready to begin tackling Erikson's 2nd dilemma: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. If they have successfully mastered Trust vs. Mistrust during infancy, they are then able to go into this second developmental stage with confidence and optimism, and to have a much greater chance of successfully resolving it. Erikson also theorized that his stages are foundational: each stage lays the foundation for the next one. If the previous stages are shaky and precarious, it will be harder to build a solid psychological structure in the current stage. Each stage builds on the foundation of the stages that came before. But of course, we never completely finish our work on any of the dilemmas, but continue to re-visit them over and over as we collect life experiences that either reinforce or challenge our beliefs.
Erikson’s ideas make a lot of sense to me. I reflect on this every day in my work with children and parents. I've been immersed in this, and other important and universally accepted theories of human development for the last few months, as I've been teaching several sections of basic child development. The more I teach about the theories, the more I learn about them. And the more I know, the more I see child development principles in living form at preschool and in my own family.
I think back to my own early childhood. I know that my mom and dad prioritized my care, and the care of my older brother, above everything else. When I was a baby, I know I was held, rocked, walked at all hours, and fiercely loved from the moment I was born. I have had the privilege of growing up in the cozy nest of trust that my parents helped me build during that first year, by consistently meeting my needs and by always sharing their warm feelings openly.
I also know that my parents trusted others to help care for me. In my baby book I found pages of hand-written notes, placed there by my mom, which document my first few weeks of life, with notations of every time I ate, slept, or had a diaper change, around the clock. (Apparently I was a bit fussy. So out of character...... ha ha....) The thing that warmed my heart when I discovered this baby-journal several years ago is the fact that I recognized lots of different handwriting in it. I saw Grandma’s and Grandpa’s writing, along with aunts and uncles, as well as mom and dad. Everyone pitched in and helped me get a start in life, after a rocky beginning due to rh incompatibility. (Not long after I was born, medical science created treatments for this problem, and now It’s almost completely preventable or treatable. But in 1959, it was life-threatening.) I saw that Mom and Dad not only worked together to take care of me and my brother, but they also trusted other people to help. I still remember the names of the doctors who cared for me during infancy: they were the main characters in the family legends that I was told over and over.
My mom and dad also wrote in the hastily-scribbled baby-feeding journal silly and cute little facts and notations about my brother, who was two. He wasn’t old enough to help much, but he was there, a part of the team. I remember hearing stories about how he tried to help, and about his protective two-year-old love for his baby sister.
As I grew, the circle of trust widened: When I was three, and experienced my first separation anxieties when dropped off at Sunday School for an hour, my Mom made it clear to me by her words and her actions that she trusted the Sunday School teacher to take good care of me until she came back. I will never forget the names and the love of my first grade teacher, and every other teacher I had in my first school years. Again, my parents conveyed to me their trust in these teachers, and I absorbed those messages.
All of these experiences served to reinforce my feelings of trust, and my belief in the goodness of the world. Having the ability to trust has allowed me to be a hopeful and optimistic person, and to be able to relate to others with respect and love throughout my entire life. It is a very basic underpinning that has made me “Me.”
My parents were wonderful, but they were not super-heroes: they just gave me good, basic loving care. They loved me the way they had been loved by their parents. Many babies experience this level of trustworthy care. But, unfortunately, around the world, and in our community, many, many do not.
It’s also troubling to me that many children who have very loving and responsive parents are, unfortunately, receiving the message from their parents that most other people in the world are suspect. “You can trust me, but no one else can meet your needs” is the message that some parents convey to their child, and the same message of mistrust may be directed equally toward total strangers or trustworthy teachers, caregivers, friends, or relatives. The message comes through loud and clear to children, whether it is communicated through words or actions.
Children are building their lifelong foundations when they are little. Most of these foundations are built through the values and feelings that we communicate to them, through what we do as well as what we say. Teaching our children to trust is the first, and perhaps the most important, gift we can give them. Children build happy and productive lives upon the cornerstone of trust.
Posted by ANNIE CASTLE DECKERT, M.ED.PSYCH.