Trust is the Foundation for the Good Parent-Child Relationship.
In Erik Erikson’s psycho-social model, the first developmental stage in the life of a child is Trust vs. Mistrust. To trust is to believe that another’s words or actions are true and can be depended upon. Mistrust is fear of not being responded to or doubting that others care about one’s needs. Hope and optimism are cultivated in the child through trust; skepticism, fear and insecurity grow when basic trust needs are not met. To be fed, heard, responded to, comforted, held, touched and loved are the basic trust needs in the first two years of life.
Trust is built on the emotion of love. A trustworthy attachment bond is based upon the mutual interactions of love. Children are dependent on others and the healthy parent enjoys meeting her child’s emotional and physical needs. A child’s sense of self-worth is nurtured by seeing this enjoyment or delight in the parent. This trust teaches the child about intimacy where love seeks to know the other’s thoughts, needs, emotions and desires.
Trust requires emotional attunement. The parent believes that the child’s presented emotional state is true and the child learns that others come when he cries and understand that he needs attention. This trust ideally leads to the parent helping the child put her emotions into words. The trust-building parent sits with the child and gently explores the fears, joys, cares and sadness of the child. The emotionally attuned parent listens patiently. Trust requires that the parent take the feelings of the child seriously. Dismissing or correcting feelings has the effect of making him ashamed of sharing his feelings and wondering if he can trust his emotions.
Trust requires an empathetic understanding of and respect for the child’s perspective. At a family dinner when her grandmother was approaching death, my 4-year old daughter was not eating very much. A relative said to her, “Jenny, you have to eat! You are going to disappear.” A few hours later, Jenny burst into tears and said, “Mom, I am afraid to disappear.” She needed encouragement to share her thoughts about death, have her fears validated and be reassured of her good health. It was a time to sit down together and take as much time as she needed.
When a child is believed by the parent, when the parent enters the child’s world and accepts his perception as real for the child, trust is built. This basic trust promotes the internalization of a peaceful security in self, others and God in the mind of the child. This trust builds resilience for the inevitable criticisms and rejections that every child and adolescent faces.
We can be very hopeful in our abilities to cultivate trust in our children. But we are imperfect parents who have had sufferings, losses and our own imperfect parents. We all stand on the trust continuum; on the opposite side is mistrust. We make mistakes. Parents need to be intentional, thoughtful, patient and seek to make sense of their own past hurts and fears to be good at cultivating a mutually trusting relationship. It is hard, but rewarding work. Trust can be learned throughout the lifetime and repair work can be applied to broken and neglected trust.
Kim L. Florio, LCSW