1st Stage of Development: Trust Versus Mistrust: How Developmental Tasks & Stages are Used in Therapy
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
It's not something we probably notice on a daily basis, but developmental changes occur throughout the human lifespan. It is helpful to briefly understand tasks and stages that are associated with healthy psychological and social development.
In this blog I'm going to present the Eriksonian (1902-94) model focusing on the first stage, Trust versus Mistrust which occurs in the first year of life. I often consider Erikson when young children and parents are having difficulties communicating, cooperating, having peace or making progress. By considering the developmental tasks and stages, we can focus in therapy on reinforcing those as a way to effectively remedy some of the behaviors or moods that may be problematic or 'stuckness' that may have occurred.
Where Do Things Go Wrong With Infant Psycho-Social Development?
For the infant to become a trusting and happy person, it would be great if he could learn to feel safe from birth. We know that doesn't always happen. From the infant's perspective he requires a sense of physical comfort and minimal amount of fear and apprehension to be able to develop a strong trusting attachment and accomplish the first development task from Erikson's model, Trust versus Mistrust.
For example, if the infant is consistently left with a wet diaper too long, diaper rash appears and he begins to suffer. To be fair, even the most conscientious parents experience diaper rash and no parent is perfect! However, to develop a sense of trust over time requires the baby to experience a consistent feeling of physical comfort and minimal amount of fear and apprehension.
To accomplish this first developmental stage and be able to solidly trust his attachment figures, the infant needs to learn... When I want or need something, I can expect to get my needs met in a loving, efficient and consistent way. I have the power to get my needs met. My attachment figures love me and are responsive and kind. I can depend on them to help me when I'm in distress or don't know what I need because I am totally helpless after all... so this is a survival matter.
If the parents are preoccupied by various normal every day responsibilities and distractions such as overwork, conflictual relationships, electronics, media and other pursuits, they may be worn out and not emotionally and/or physically available when the infant is learning to flex his trust muscles for the first time.
If the baby is left alone too often when he is upset, he may learn that he does not have the power to get his needs met, and that his attachment figures are not concerned with his needs either, therefore he and his needs are unimportant... Ouch! We have to do better in this stage as a foundation for all other tasks and stages of Erikson's model across the lifespan. If it's too late, don't worry there are always things you can do.
Major attachment figures who are slow to respond, off target, or dealing with their own challenging lives may lead to the infant feeling like the adults can't be trusted. Mistrust instead of trust is inadvertently developed. A person could get stuck here and never be able to trust anyone in life. What the infant learns is No, I don't have the power to get my needs met... I probably don't deserve to get my needs met... I'm no good.
Feeling like he can't trust his caretakers completely may lead the infant to exhibit distress in a variety of ways and/or to eventually withdraw into learned helplessness. This is when individuals learn from their life experiences that they do not have a reasonable amount of control over their environment and are required to submit to situations they may not feel good about.
If parents are arguing within earshot of the infant, the baby experiences an adrenaline rush. He may start screaming for help, because now he is terrified and unable to resolve the adrenaline rush easily by himself. If the attachment figures allow arguing, excessive media and/or loud noise; slow, off target or non-responsiveness to occur as the modus operandi of the family, the infant starts to learn When I cry, I don't know who is going to help me and they don't know how I like things... and I feel afraid. I experience rushes of adrenaline in my tiny body. (This can become an addiction, by the way, as when people can be addicted to drama and bad relationships.)
Therapy interventions can be worked on to help resolve the developmental task of Trust versus Mistrust no matter now old the individual may be now. We may also see infants grow up to be self-sufficient and in-control adults in these types of situations. What sometimes happens is individuals may re-expereince strong unresolved distrustful emotions when a marriage or couple relationship is desired later in life as that is the most intimate relationship since infancy. In the next post we will consider Erikson's second stage of development and how it may apply to your life and therapy.