Erikson’s Trust vs. Mistrust Explained

Stage 1 of psychosocial development begins at birth and extends to 18 months. This stage is called “trust vs. mistrust” or, more simply, an infant’s first paradox: on the one hand, since his earliest days, your baby has been entirely dependent on your protection and care, but on the other hand, he quickly learns that he only exists when you’re there with him.

In Erikson’s psychosocial theory, trust vs. mistrust is the first of eight stages. During this stage, infants develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliability, care, and affection. As infants control their emotions and move toward independence, they form relationships with others.

If these relationships are caring and consistent, infants will develop a sense of trust which will help them form secure relationships throughout their lives. On the other hand, infants who experience unpredictable caregiving or lack affection may become fearful and slow to explore their environment. These children may grow up afraid to form close bonds with others because they fear that they will be betrayed or abandoned again.

Importance of Trust in the Development of a Child

Many psychologists have emphasized the importance of trust in a child’s development. Generally, the first year of a child’s life is crucial to its development, especially in personality and behavior. 

A child must learn to trust others before developing self-confidence or a sense of security. The child who learns to trust his parents will be able to separate from them more easily when he grows older than the one who has not learned to trust them.

Trust is essential for mental health because it creates a positive self-image and a sense of security. For example, when the mother meets all her baby’s needs promptly and affectionately, the baby feels secure and develops faith in the reliability and dependability of others. As this feeling grows, so makes his sense of security and self-confidence.

If, on the other hand, the mother fails to meet her baby’s needs regularly, he may become afraid that no one can be relied upon, and he may develop fears and anxieties which will last throughout his life unless steps are taken to remove these feelings.

Trust also plays a significant role in self-esteem. A child who doesn’t trust their judgment may become easily discouraged and depressed. This could lead to more severe conditions like eating disorders or substance abuse. Parents often worry about low self-esteem being passed on to their children. Still, it’s essential to realize that children also develop their self-esteem by trusting themselves and those around them.

Impact of Mistrust on a Relationship

Mistrust is the first stage in Erikson’s theory of Psychosocial Development. This stage occurs between birth and one year of age. During this period, infants are uncertain about the world they live in. The infant requires a nurturing environment with a sense of security and safety. If children in this stage are unsuccessful, they become insecure and mistrustful of the world around them. If an infant does not develop trust, they will carry feelings of doubt and disbelief into adulthood.

Most psychologists have concluded that this mistrust experience could harm a child’s personality and behavior. To understand how trust could influence a child’s development, one must first look at what trust is.

Trust consists of two components, reliability and honesty. While reliability refers to being there for someone, honesty means being consistent in one’s behaviors. The trust between parents and children is also dependent on these two components. It is believed that if children are brought up in an atmosphere where they are not trusted, it could lead them to become less trusting adults, as I discussed before.

Studies have also shown that mistrust, particularly as a child, can significantly impact the development of a person. A lack of trust in others early is often associated with various adverse outcomes later in life.

One example of this is the social behaviors it may cause. Children who do not trust others may be less likely to want to interact with them and may not feel comfortable interacting with others even when forced to. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and even depression as they grow older.

The impact on their social behaviors is also likely to affect their education. Children who don’t trust others may be less likely to perform well in school or participate in school-related events because they do not have many friends or feel comfortable around their peers and teachers.

Related Read: Generativity vs. stagnation – Erikson’s seventh stage of Psychosocial Development Theory

What Causes a Child to Mistrust?

When a child is born, they must depend on their parents and the people around them to keep them safe and secure. They look to their parents for love, affection, food, and shelter to survive. Through their experiences with their parents, a child learns that the world is safe and can be trusted. But if the parents are always absent, unable to care for the child, or inconsistent in their parenting, the child may learn that the world is not trustworthy.

  • Neglect
  • Abuse, both physical and sexual
  • Lack of affection from a parent
  • Unpredictable parenting styles 
  • Unreliable parenting styles (parents who break promises)

According to the psychology community, the most commonly cited cause of mistrust is a history of neglect. The effects of negligence can be wide-ranging, but the most apparent effect is a lack of attachment between parent and child. This does not necessarily mean that a father or mother causes mistrust by being emotionally distant or unavailable, but it can.

In some cases, neglect can result from something as devastating as abuse or parents suffering from mental illness or addiction. In these cases, the child may experience feelings of worthlessness and rejection, which likely lead to feelings of distrust later in life.

Final Words

Psychosocial development, or the movement towards a sense of identity, is a significant and integral part of our lives because it influences our future personalities. Actualization involves developing a sense of self-worth, self-acceptance, and confidence to propel oneself toward new challenges. This comes from having a general sense of trust and confidence in others and an inner sense of trust and confidence in oneself.

Erikson’s theory offers a great way to identify where trust fits into our lives and how it affects how we interact with others. We can see mistrust often impedes healthy relationships physically, emotionally, and socially.


  • Gedge, E., & Abell, S. (2020). Trust versus mistrust. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 5585–5588.
  • Pitula, C. E., Wenner, J. A., Gunnar, M. R., & Thomas, K. M. (2016). To trust or not to trust: Social Decision-making in post-institutionalized, internationally adopted youth. Developmental Science, 20(3).
  • Murphy, G., Peters, K., Wilkes, L., & Jackson, D. (2015). Childhood parental mental illness: Living with fear and mistrust. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 36(4), 294–299.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.