Infants in most families learn to trust that Mom, and other adults and older children in their lives, are responsive. Sense of security develops as discomfort is removed, needs are met and life is predictable and safe. Infants who are fed, changed, and loved thrive. Studies done long ago prove that the last ingredient, love, that ill-defined component, is essential for normal development. Simply meeting the physical needs of food and shelter is not enough for infants to grow and mature normally. Failure to gain weight, serious developmental delays and deficits, even death, are the consequences of severe emotional deprivation. Human beings, as well as other animals, need each other and that nebulous element, love.
Toddlers play, “run away, come back”. Testing Mom’s consistency and predictability, they learn to trust if Mom is still there, or to doubt if Mom is not present, both physically and emotionally.
Adolescents in healthy families can trust in parental love and know that they will be accepted even when they make mistakes. They know that they will have support, perhaps along with discipline, but that Mom and Dad will not abandon them. They know they can safely bring friends home, because Mom and Dad are predictable.
What if needs are not met? What if babies and children, even older children are physically or emotionally abused or abandoned? Sometimes adults are aware of doing harm to their children, but make excuses for themselves and refuse to change; sometimes they are not aware, perhaps in a cycle of repeating what was done, or not done, to them. Emotionally abusive or unavailable parents may be simply too selfish and self-centered to be consistently present for anyone. Those who are depressed, alcoholic, workaholic, or rage-aholic, or just not there, teach their children that people are not reliable. A baby who is not cared for when he cries, rapidly learns he cannot get his needs met. A teenager who finds mom gone or drunk, or dad raging or having an affair, learns to not trust. Message to child: I am not predictable. Don’t count on me to be there for you.
Parents get sick, die, divorce, land in jail, and leave children in a variety of ways that are unavoidable and explainable. If there is another adult who can help the children through the normal feelings, the sadness and anger of loss, psychological damage is avoidable.
The child raised in the first family discussed, the one with predictable parents who are selfless enough to be present for him, parents who model honesty and follow through, is likely to become like them. He becomes a person with integrity. He will trust that others will be reliable and trustworthy and will be attracted to dependable friends and partners, not tolerating relationships with those who cannot be trusted.
The person raised with inconsistent parents is taught that adults are dishonest, unreliable, don’t do what they say, and so on. This one often becomes the kind of adult that was modeled for him. He is attracted to similar friends and partners. Erratic behavior and unreliable people are familiar. Result: sometimes a declaration from the child that, “I will never get married,” or sometimes a lifelong attempt to find someone who will be reliable and trustworthy.
Parents: You do not have to be perfect. Follow through, tell the truth, keep promises, be predictable and honest, explain diversions from the usual. Pick up your offspring when they cry and pick up your older children on time; be emotionally consistent, avoiding outbursts of anger and other crazy, erratic behavior.
Check out your behavior and the behavior of those in your life. Are you trustworthy? Are your friends and partners “show up” kind of people? You can learn a lot about yourself by looking at your friends. If you are not the person you want to be and not attracting healthy people into your life, do something about it. Get some help and look at where you came from. Alcoholic or rage-aholic parents? Whew! Deal with the damage done to you; don’t inflict it on your own children. Be the best person you can be.
Who knows, maybe you will learn to trust the universe, the process, and God.