A Matter of Trust

Examining trust over lifespans

We Can Get It Right

Parenting and children’s trust

Yes We Can!

By Ken J. Rotenberg1, Lucy Betts2, and Pamela Qualter3

From the very beginning of contemporary psychology, trust has been regarded as the cornerstone of social development. Erikson (1963) proposed that trust versus mistrust is the first stage of development that prevails during infancy and, thus, affects psychosocial functioning across the life-span. Similarly, attachment theorists have proposed that infants’ trust is a product of their interactions with caregivers that, via its role in the Internal Working Model (i.e., mental representations), affects social functioning (see Bridges, 2003). Harris and his colleagues (e.g., Corriveau, & Harris, 2010) have argued that children’s trust in others, notably their parents, is essential to their acquisition of knowledge of the physical world and religious beliefs.

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Despite these claims, there is scarcity of research that has specifically examined the extent to which parents affect their children’s trust and their social development. There are two interrelated questions needed to be addressed: (1) whether (and if so how) parents affect their children’s trust in others and (2) whether or not children’s trust in their parents affects their (the children’s) social development. The purpose of this Blog is to review the relevant research regarding these issues. We will attempt to help parents answer a question that they frequently ask: how can I promote my child’s trust in me? This Blog is another of the Trust Matters Blog in the Psychology Today series.

Do parents affect their children’s trust? One answer to this question is provided by attachment theory. According to attachment theory (see Cohn, 1990), securely, as opposed to insecurely, attached children develop an Internal Working Model that is characterized by a sense of trust in others and by positive thoughts regarding the intentions of other people’s behaviors and, thus, attain social competence. As support for this idea, researchers have found relations between the quality of children’s attachment (secure vs insecure) and their later social competence: those effects are small to modest in size (see Schneider, Atkinson & Tardif, 2001). In keeping with attachment theory, we (Rotenberg et al., 2013) found that elementary-school children’s beliefs that their parents kept promises were associated the extent to which the children depended on peers to keep promises and kept promises they made to peers. These findings are consistent with notion that children’s trust beliefs in parents provide the basis for the children’s trust beliefs in, and trusting behavior towards, their peers. In another study, we (Rotenberg et al., 2005) found in the UK that elementary-school children’s trust beliefs in their mothers and fathers were associated with helping peers. Children who held high beliefs in their parents were more likely to help their peers than were children who held low trust beliefs in their parents. These findings support attachment theory to the extent that children who hold high trust beliefs in parents are likely those who have established secure attachments with parents and therefore are inclined to demonstrate competence in their peer interactions (e.g., keeping promises, and helping).

Does Parents’ Trust in others affect their Children’s Trust in others? We have examined the relation between parents’ trust in others and their children’s trust in others. We (Rotenberg, 1995) have found that mothers' trust beliefs in others were correlated with their elementary school children’s trust beliefs in others. Also, we found that fathers' trusting behavior during a competitive vs co-operative game (i.e., a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game) was correlated with their elementary-school children's trusting behavior in the same game with a stranger. We interpreted these findings as suggesting that: (1) mothers' verbalizations of trust regarding others affected their children's trust beliefs in others, and (2) fathers’ trusting behavior in playful interactions affected their children’s trusting behavior in similar interactions with unfamiliar others.

Certainly parents are central to a child’s life but the neighbourhood likely plays a role in it as well. In that vein, we (Rotenberg et al, 2012) have found that the trustworthiness of the neighborhood predicted children’s reliability (promise-keeping) trust beliefs in others and the children’s trustworthiness (keeping promises) over time. The findings show that when children live in a trustworthy rather than untrustworthy neighborhood they are inclined develop trusting beliefs and trustworthiness.

Are there effects of divorce on children’s trust? One of the most disruptive experiences for children is when their parents divorce. There is a body of research supporting the conclusion that children from families with divorce show greater psychosocial maladjustment than do children from “intact” families (see Reifman et al., 2001). Researchers have found that, compared to children of intact families, children from families with divorce demonstrate lower generalized trust beliefs in parents (Sun & Li, 2002) and lower trust beliefs in their future spouse when they are adults (Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990). Qualitative studies (Baker, 2005) show that children report experiencing anguish, lack of trust, and alienation when their parents get divorced. It should be noted that there are limitations in arriving at the conclusion that divorce per se (rather than parental conflict) is responsible for atypical patterns of trusting others.

As a parent what should I do to promote my child’s trust in me? Before addressing this question, it should be highlighted that encouraging children to adopt excessively high trust beliefs in others is not desirable because such beliefs appear to undermine their psychosocial adjustment (see references). Nevertheless, the Basis, Domain, and Target (BDT) interpersonal framework (see the same Blog) still suggests that parents should promote children’s basic trust in them (the parents) in order to establish a trusting parent-child relationship. According to the BDT, parents can do so by fulfilling promises they have made to their child, being receptive to their child’s disclosure, and demonstrating honesty in interactions with their child. However, the financial and interpersonal stresses of contemporary times do make it difficult for parents to consistently demonstrate those behaviors in their interactions with their children. Perhaps the most challenging task, though, is for parents to ensure a trusting parent-child relationship is maintained over the course of marital disharmony and resulting divorce. These transitions have the potential to erode children’s trust in parents and, when the children are adults, trust in their marital partners. Despite the hardships, we encourage each parent to adhere to the behaviors recommended by the BDT interpersonal trust framework in order to ensure that the child’s trust in each parent is not undermined.

Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail: k.j.rotenberg@keele.ac.uk

2. Dr. Lucy Betts, Senior Lecturer, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK, NG1 4BU, e-mail: lucy.betts@ntu.ac.uk

3 Dr. Pamela Qualter, Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, PR1 2HE, email: PQualter@uclan.ac.uk

The authors extend their thanks to Professor Jim Hartley (Keele University) for his assistance in writing this blog.

References

Atkinson, L., & Tardif, C. (2001). Child–parent attachment and children’s peer relations. A quantitative review. Developmental Psychology, 37, 86–100.

Bridges, L. J. (2003). Trust, attachment, and relatedness. In M. H. Bornstein, L. Davidson, C. L. M. Keyes, & K. A. Moore (Eds), Well-being: Positive development across the life course (pp. 136-162).Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Corriveau, K. H., & Harris, P. L., (2010). Young children’s trust in what other people say. In Ken J. Rotenberg (Ed). Interpersonal trust during childhood and adolescence (pp. 87-109), New York:Cambridge University Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Franklin, K. M., Janoff-Bulman, R., & Roberts, J. E. (1990). Long-term impact of parental divorce on optimism and trust: Changes in general assumptions or narrow beliefs? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 743-755.

Reifman, A., Villa, L. C., Amans, J. A., Rethinam, V., & Telesca, T. Y. (2001). Children of divorce in the 1990s: A meta-analysis. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. 36, 27-36.

Rotenberg, K. J. (1995). The socialisation of trust: Parents' and children's interpersonal trust. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 18, 713-726.

Rotenberg, K. J., Betts, L. R., Eisner, M. & Ribeaud, D. (2012). Social antecedents of children’s trustworthiness. Infant and Child Development, 21, 310-322.

Rotenberg, K. J., Fox, C., Green, S., Ruderman, L., Slater, K., Stevens, K. & Carlo, G. (2005). Construction and validation of a children's interpersonal trust belief scale. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 271-292.

Rotenberg, K. J., Petrocchi S., Lecciso, F. & Marchetti, A. (2013). Children’s trust beliefs and trusting behavior. Child Development Research, Article ID 806597, 8 pages.

Schneider, B. H., Atkinson, L., & Tardif, C. (2001). Child–parent attachment and children’s peer relations. A quantitative review. Developmental Psychology, 37, 86–100.

Sun, Y., & Li, Y. (2002). Children's well-being during parents' marital disruption process: A pooled time-series analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 472-488.

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Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Keele University in the UK. He researches trust, loneliness, and other areas.

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