A child’s trust is a sacred thing. They come into the world wholly innocent, and they’re entirely dependent on the people around them for everything. Food, shelter, love, nurturing…it all comes from the adults surrounding that child.
Breaking the trust of a child is cruel, and not simply because as humans we’re meant to love one another. Fracturing a child’s trust – especially at its most basic level, when a baby is first learning about his environment – fundamentally affects that child’s ability to believe in the world around him.
It can make a kid like T-man question even the most basic of truths.
Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development describes how a child’s social experience influences their entire lifespan. Stage 1 is trust versus mistrust and occurs during the first 12 months of a child’s life, making it the most fundamental stage of development.
A baby’s entire life experience is dependent on the adults around him. Does he eat or go hungry? Is he warm and dry? When he cries for one of the thousands of reasons a baby cries, does someone comfort him? All of his experiences integrate to teach the baby whether or not he can trust the adults in his life, and the effect of that reaches far and wide.
“If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable, or rejecting contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.” (Kendra Cherry. 2015. “Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development: The Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development.” About.com. About Health blog. Retrieved March 2, 2016. http://psychology.about.com/od/psychosocialtheories/a/psychosocial.htm.)
Which leads us back to T-man, who joined our family when he was ten months old. He was such a lively guy – pulling up and cruising, bubbly and affectionate, curious about the world around him. Since T-man was older I was watching for signs of attachment issues, difficulty adjusting, anything that was off, but he seemed fine. A perfectly happy, healthy baby boy.
Fast forward eight years and we were facing an entirely different situation. Anger, frustration, out of control emotions. T-man was fighting demons that overwhelmed him, and as our family struggled through it I wondered what I was missing.
A couple more years passed and now T-man’s dealing with even more complicated thoughts and feelings. Last month he lost his temper and made a mistake – it was a really big mistake, granted, but still. As BrightSide and I sat with him that night, T-man’s words broke my heart.
T-man doesn’t really trust himself, and that lack of confidence radiates outward. Since he doesn’t fully trust himself, T-man doesn’t wholly trust anyone. Not even us, which means he’s living in a constant state of uncertainty. Every time T-man breaks a rule, or fights with Bear, or thinks he failed in one way or another he’s on pins and needles waiting to see what will happen.
Which brings us to perhaps the most heart wrenching moment of the night: hearing my son say that he isn’t 100% sure we won’t send him back one day. Those words cut right through me, so much so I could hardly breathe. When BrightSide and I told him (again) that this was an impossibility – family is forever, and there’s nothing T-man could do that would make us send him away – he simply lay there, unconvinced. We can tell him we love him a thousand times a day, but until T-man finds a way to trust us he’ll always have that seed of doubt. Along with the pain that comes with wondering when you’ll be torn out of your life and thrown away.
I’ll never know exactly what happened during the first ten months of T-man’s life, but I’ve learned enough to know that it wouldn’t have inspired trust. T-man has always struggled with the world, fearing its uncertainty and inconsistencies; this made a great deal of sense once I revisited Erikson’s theory of development. T-man has no foundation of trust on which to rely.
I’m not exactly sure what all of this gets me, except maybe a better understanding of T-man’s approach to life. I find it tragic that our son might never truly appreciate how deeply loved he is, or that he might never know for sure that he is 100% a part of our family. I have to believe that one day he’ll find his way to these feelings. That hope is really the only thing that keeps my heart from breaking.