Trust vs. Mistrust: Psychosocial Stage 1

Erik Erikson’s work with psychosocial development has broken down the different stages of social interaction and how they affect a child’s personality, outlook, and virtues. That crucial first stage of psychosocial development can impact your life way past infancy or even adolescence.

What Is Trust Vs. Mistrust?

The first stage of Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is Stage 1, under which the child goes through a psychological crisis of “trust vs. mistrust”. They must rely on the mother for their needs; the response of the mother determines whether the child develops trust or mistrust.

This care and attentiveness must be consistent in order to build trust. If an infant is getting some care from its mother, but cannot rely on consistent care, mistrust and anxiety will still form. With consistent care, the child will also develop hope.

Trust vs. Mistrust Age

This stage starts as soon as a child is born and lasts until the child is 18 months old.

Basic Example of Trust vs. Mistrust

Let’s say a mother feeds her baby in the morning. The next time the child is hungry, they will cry in the hopes that the mother will hear the cry and feed the child again. If the mother succeeds in fulfilling the child’s needs, trust will grow stronger. If the mother fails to feed the child, their hopes will be dashed and mistrust may start to form. When we cannot hold onto hope, we can quickly feel lost or helpless.

crying baby

This hope and trust become a foundation for the developing child. In the second and third stages of psychosocial development, the child has more opportunities to branch out and take control of their decisions and actions. Without a trusting parent or guardian, it can be harder for the child to make these decisions and branch out further.

Are Trust Issues Normal?

It’s not abnormal for a child to go through the trust vs. mistrust stage without fully establishing trust with their parents. Most of the time, it’s not the child’s “fault” anyway! A child cries and tries to communicate its needs with the limited abilities that it has. If the parent cannot fulfill those needs, the child may, unfortunately, develop trust issues.

Trust issues can easily carry on until adulthood, and may also be influenced by other factors. A person who experiences infidelity may have a hard time trusting future partners. Someone who was fired from a job suddenly may not feel comfortable as they seek out another job. Bad things happen to all of us, and reacting to those situations by trying to prevent them in the future is normal. The thoughts we experience when we have trust issues may be a defense mechanism. It is normal to want to protect yourself, so it is normal to experience trust issues when that protection is threatened. 

Trust issues go beyond romantic relationships. A person who has not established trust with their parents or whose trust has been broken may not trust anyone. Educators, scientists, fellow citizens, etc. In recent surveys, a majority of Americans say they can trust…that trust for others has worsened and is causing a lot of interpersonal conflicts within the country! 

Trust vs. Mistrust in Adulthood

Although Erikson outlined the psychosocial stages of development into neat and clean stages, they can have an effect on each other. A child does not just forget their trust issues when they turn 18 months old – their interests just begin to shift as they explore the conflict of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. 

Erikson went so far as to suggest that if a child does not learn to trust in the first 18 months of their life, all areas of their life will be impacted. Think about it. Our relationships, and the trust we put in them, impacts many of our decisions. Would you travel the world if you didn’t trust the people who lived in it? Could you network effectively if you didn’t trust people to help you in the ways that you could help them? Adults can find ways to re-establish trust that they might not have learned in their infancy, but it is entirely possible that they will have to take those steps.

If you have ever been in a relationship after being cheated on, you know the impact that mistrust can have.

Lasting Impacts of Lack of Trust

Psychologists who have studied trust vs. mistrust suggest that not only is this stage important, but it also has lasting implications. Research associates a lack of trust with:

  • Criminal and delinquent behaviors
  • Social disengagement
  • Irresponsibility
  • Loneliness
  • Peer rejection
  • Depression
  • Lower self-perceived social acceptance
  • Lower peer-rated social preference

That’s a lot of issues that can be solved by more attentiveness in infancy!

Similarly, psychologists like Mary Ainsworth pointed to the relationships and trust established in infancy when discussing adult relationships. Yes, the trust issues you have with your partner may be traced back to your needs not being met as a child. At least, that’s what attachment theory suggests.

Attachment Styles and Trust

The impacts of mistrust in this first stage can last a lifetime and have a serious impact on the way we interact with others.

Erik Erikson was not the only psychologist who was inspired by the works of Freud. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth also considered Freud’s work in their research on development. Bowlby and Ainsworth are best known for their theories on attachment styles.

The psychologists named four different attachment styles that develop as a child and carry over into adulthood. If, for example, a child develops a secure attachment style, they are more likely to have healthy relationships and boundaries as an adult. These relationships include romantic relationships, friendly relationships, or even just the relationships you have with people that you have just met.

attachment styles

These four styles either fall under the category of “secure” or “insecure.”

Secure Attachment Style

Someone with a secure attachment style is more likely to have healthy relationships. They are more likely to trust their parents, strangers, and authority figures. In the eyes of Erik Erikson, children with a secure attachment style are better suited to move onto the next stage with a healthy social life and personality.

Insecure Attachment Style

People with insecure attachment styles may have developed some type of mistrust as a child. Maybe a parent was absent or their level of care was sporadic. There are three types of attachment styles that fall under the “insecure” category, and they manifest in different ways.

Reddit user mahanahan shared their essay on how Barney from How I Met Your Mother may have developed mistrust and an insecure attachment style as a young child. Clearly, this affected his ability to form relationships in adulthood. This stage of psychosocial development is more crucial than we might initially think!

More Examples of Trust vs. Mistrust

In some cases, mistrust is developed when a parent fails to meet their child’s needs despite their best intentions. Maybe the parent is stressed out from caring for multiple children, away from home due to a hectic job schedule, or does not feel confident in their child-rearing abilities. This is completely normal, as parents often live demanding lives! (Not every country or job supports paid maternity or paternity leave!) 

But there are also examples of trust vs. mistrust that are downright cruel. Neglecting or abusing a child can certainly lead to a life of not only mistrust but also underdevelopment. 

Feral Children

In the 1940s, two different feral children were discovered by psychologists. They were born one month apart and found within nine months of each other. Their stories fascinated psychologists and the world.

Both children had been isolated and neglected throughout their infancy up until they were discovered. Anna, from Pennsylvania, was kept strapped down to the attic of her family’s home. Isabelle, of Ohio, was kept in a dark room with only a deaf-mute mother as a contact.

Discovered at the age of 6, both girls experienced severe developmental disabilities. Their lack of socialization from an early age resulted in linguistic difficulties, severe mistrust, and a myriad of health issues.

Anna died at the age of 10 from jaundice. Psychologists worked closely with the child to improve her abilities and speed up her development, but to no avail. Anna had the linguistic and social skills of a two-year-old when she passed away.

These cases have contributed to the study of socialization from an early age. Without proper interaction with family, a child may not be able to develop fully. In less extreme cases than Anna and Isabelle, a lack of interaction with family may cause a child to develop anxiety, shame, mistrust, or a lack of hope.

neglected child

Can Trust vs. Mistrust Be Resolved?

We know that Anna’s story is tragic. Fortunately, while Isabelle struggled to catch up, she did manage to catch up with her peers within three years. If a child goes through this first stage and develops mistrust, there is still hope for them to have a thriving social life and healthy relationships. Sure, there will be a delay, but with proper therapy, education, and relationships moving forward, it’s possible to “catch up” and enter into later stages in Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development with hope and trust.

How to Resolve Trust Issues As an Adult 

Mistrust developed as an infant can affect a person for the rest of their lives, but it does not have to. Reading and understanding the theories behind trust issues and insecure attachment can be a great first step to resolving these feelings. You may have to put your trust in someone to resolve these issues, but that is all part of the process! 

Practice mindfulness.

Before having conversations with your partner or taking risks, sit with yourself and be mindful. What thoughts are causing you to feel anxious or nervous? How does this lack of trust feel in your body? As you start to become more aware of how you talk to yourself, you may find that you can change the conversation and reassure yourself to a place of deeper trust.

Communicate with your partner and friends.

With the knowledge of your trust issues at hand, talk to friends, family, and your partner about how these trust issues make you feel. This is a risk in itself, but it’s one that will pay off. Open and honest communication will help put everyone on the same page. You may find that your friends, family, or partner were not aware of these trust issues. They can use this information to adjust how they communicate or behave with you in order to build trust more effectively. 

Reach out to a mental health professional.

You do not have to go through this process alone. A certified mental health professional can walk you through the beliefs and experiences that surround your trust issues. Many therapists use an approach based on the ideas of Erikson, Ainsworth, and other psychologists who studied attachment theory and trust issues. Consider asking possible therapists for a 15-minute consultation in which you can establish trust and decide if this is the right professional for you. 

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.