Erikson’s Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust. “The re-establishment of a state of trust has been found to be the basic requirement for therapy.”-- Erik Erikson

According to Erikson, the first stage of development surrounds the psychosocial Crisis of Trust vs. Mistrust. Although this stage generally occurs in the first 18 months of life, Erikson did not apply specific ages to the stages. Erikson described the virtue of this stage as “hope” or the expectations that one’s needs will be met by others and the world.

First Stage As the Foundation

Erikson believed that this First Stage was foundational and had a direct impact on future stages. He thought successful navigation of this stage becomes the basis for a person to trust others and themselves and profoundly impacts a person’s ability to form healthy relationships in the future. In terms of brain development, this is the most impactful stage. Roughly 90% of brain growth occurs during this stage of development.

Nature in Conjunction with Nurture

Genetic expression is also dictated by our environment, most notably genes impacting addiction are thought to be activated when environments do not promote attachment (Mate’ 2010). During this stage, our relationships with our caregivers are critical. According to Erikson, success in this stage is primarily dependent on the caregivers, mainly the mother.

Success in Stage 1

When both the child’s physical and–equally critical–emotional needs are met, children are most likely to navigate this stage successfully. Children during this stage learn that by crying, cooing, and mirroring, they can get their needs met by their caregiver. A cry may let the parent know “I need food” or “I have a mess in my diaper.” When the parent responds by meeting the need, trust is formed.

However, in addition to basic physiological needs, emotional needs also need to be met. Emotional intelligence is heavily impacted by the process of mirroring in which the caregiver and child reflect each other’s facial expressions. For example, when baby smiles and its mother smiles back, this serves as an affirmation and recognition of that expression.

Consequences of Not Meeting this Stage

When needs at this stage are not met, Erikson theorized it impacted a person’s ability to trust others and form secure attachment bonds. In later life, this may result in difficulty in the development of healthy relationships. This may show up as an unwillingness to trust or accept nurturing from others, issues with addiction as a substitute for connection, confusion around sex and nurturing, feelings that love is conditional, and feeling others’ needs are more important. Resolving these issues focusses on awareness of how early life events may have impacted development, resolving addictive patterns, loving one’s self unconditionally and affirming being lovable, practicing self-nurturing, asking for needs, learning who to trust/not trust, building trusting relationships with adults, and development of boundaries.

Psychological and Physiological Bonds

When a caregiver nurtures a child, it forms bonds of attachment psychologically and physiologically. Neurologically the brain begins to develop receptors related to the brain chemicals endorphin and dopamine. Endorphins play a role in pain reduction, attachment, and love. Dopamine plays a substantial role in motivation and emotional response.

If, for some reason, there is a lack of consistent response and physical or emotional needs are not met by the caregiver, these receptors may be negatively impacted. When the development of these receptors are impacted, there is a higher potential for a negative impact on the child’s ability to form effective relationships, make decisions, motive themselves, avoid addiction, and regulate emotions (Mate’ 2010).

Building Trust

Psychologically when a child’s needs are met, they develop the ability to trust others to meet their needs, trust themselves, trust the world around them, which lays the foundation for a person to learn how to ask for needs, develop esteem, form relationships and attachments, and emotional expression.

Trusting oneself is critical to the idea of self-esteem. In this stage, the trust of self is related strongly to trusting that one is worthy of getting their needs met.


A Brief Overview of Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development

Childhood and Society by Erik Erikson