Learning how to trust begins at birth: Babies are born completely dependent on caregivers to fulfill their basic needs for food, shelter, comfort, and love. If caregivers react to babies’ cries and body language in an attentive, consistent, and nurturing manner, those babies will feel safe and learn to trust their world, says researcher Danielle Kassow at Thrive By Five Washington, which champions early learning opportunities for children up to age five. “The parent-child relationship is the first social relationship,” says Kassow. “It teaches the child that he can communicate in order to get his needs met, which transfers to forming relationships later in life.”
From an early age, children begin to differentiate between people who are trustworthy and those who aren’t. In an experiment conducted by researchers Melissa Koenig and Paul Harris, three- and four-year-old children were confronted with adults who presented conflicting names for objects the children had never seen before. Some of these names were accurate; others were not. The four year olds could tell the accurate adults from the ones who were making names up, and later sought out the truthful adults, identifying them as trustworthy to the researchers.
In other research, Ken Rotenberg of Keele University in the United Kingdom has found that children develop trust in response to specific interactions they have with others; it is not something they apply universally. “Trust is dyadic and reciprocal, and children must learn unique patterns of trusting for each person they encounter,” says Rotenberg. “Being too trusting can be a deficit.” Instead of encouraging blind trust in children, Rotenberg argues that parents should focus on raising children who are worthy of trust. “Kids who are trustworthy have more friends and are better adjusted in school,” he says.
In their teens, kids learn to take on new roles and develop a solid, consistent self-image. As they seek greater independence from their parents, they are more susceptible to pressure from friends, and may begin experimenting with risky behaviors like alcohol and drug use. Parents may try to limit their children’s autonomy in an attempt to protect them, but experts say this can cause teens to become withdrawn or hide their activities from their parents, further weakening trust bonds.
According to child psychologist Russell Barkley, parents need to avoid this cycle of mistrust by communicating expectations for their teens in a clear, consistent manner, then following through with appropriate consequences. “Trust must be earned,” says Barkley.
“Parents need to do spot checks on their teens’ activities, to make sure they are doing what they said they would do. If they are, they should be rewarded with more autonomy; if not, there needs to be appropriate punishment.” Barkley believes that calm, consistent parenting creates an atmosphere of respect and trust in the family. “Teens count on their parents to be there for them,” he says, “even when setting up disciplinary consequences.”
In young adulthood, developing bonds of intimacy becomes paramount. We form intimate bonds learning how to trust another person to treat us fairly and protect our emotional safety.
According to psychologist Joshua Coleman, the capacity to develop intimacy is highly influenced by what kind of relationships you had early in life. “Parents who are largely loving, interested, and caring toward their children will make it easier for those children to develop intimate bonds later in life,” says Coleman, whose essay on betrayals of trust appears on page 26. “But if the parents were rejecting, the children may carry a sense of shame and inadequacy into their adult relationships.”
Still, says Coleman, it’s not all about parental relationships. Other relationships can influence trust, too. “Trust is about transparency, about learning that it’s safe to let another person know who you are and what you feel, and it’s basically trial and error,” he says. “You pay attention to your instincts about whom to trust, and you try it out.”
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About The Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.