Over the past year I have developed a seminar about Erickson's developmental stages in adopted children. Again and again I am shocked at how much the failure to achieve each of these emotional stages has impacted the children we love even though Erickson did not write them with adopted children in mind.
I am most impacted by that very first stage, trust vs. mistrust. In this stage (where attachment begins) it is the core task of the child to develop trust. Without that first core certainty about the safety of the world around them and the willingness of the people around them to meet basic human needs, children have a very bleak future. Attachment experts have been telling us this now for years, explaining Reactive Attachment Disorder to us and teaching us how to help the children heal.
But even children who are not diagnosed with this disorder seem to have trust issues that go way back to infancy. Erickson says that during this stage
as... "trust predominates, the infant learns to regard the world with an 'enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes' (hope). The emergence of this positive and adaptive ego quality signifies that personality development has proceeded successfully past the crisis of the oral-sensory stage (Erikson, 1964, p.118)"
And so the successful completion of the first stage results in the enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes, which is how Erickson defines hope. I am more and more convinced as I work with my children that they somehow missed this simple quality that I have taken for granted most of my life.
For as long as I remember I have believed that I can achieve the things that I want in life. I have been convinced that if things are bad, they will get better, if something is hard, I can overcome it, and that if I don't like something, I can change it. Those things lie at the very core of my being.
But what if my internal system was just the opposite? What if I believed that things were bad and they would never get better? What if I believed that if something was hard, it was going to overcome me and that if I didn't like something there was nothing I could do to change it? All of the sudden I become a victim of life instead of the person who is somehow at least minimally in control of my own destiny.
Last night we had plenty of teenage girl drama. One of my daughters has healthy attachment and it is obvious that she has developed hope somewhere along the way. By the days end, she apologized for her attitude, hugged me, and we both agreed that the next day would be better. My other daughter texted me right before bed, after I texted her that things were going to get better, "No they aren't. Nobody understands me and my life is bad and it is just getting worse and worse."
I used to live under the illusion that hope was contagious, that if I just had enough of it I could infuse it into other people and because of my overly positive attitude, others would be encouraged and hopeful. But I'm seeing now that this core ego quality is not something you can learn or catch -- that healing must occur first.
For each of my children it will be different. Some of them may never really fully develop this and it will be difficult to watch them struggle. But I think in realizing that it is not something I can change or fix by being happy enough, positive enough, or perky enough, I might be able to relax more and not feel so much like a failure if my kids don't grasp the concept. Instead my focus needs to be on developing trust. And hopefully, if we can do that, they will develop this core ego quality that has been such a part of who I am since infancy.