Learning To Trust Again After Childhood Betrayal By Parents

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If we suffered parental abuse during our childhood, this clearly equates to a serious betrayal. Being betrayed by one’s parents is particularly devastating as parents are the very people who are responsible for our psychological welfare and are supposed to protect us.

This is why parental betrayal can so profoundly alter our view of the world and of those who inhabit it.

Before betrayal occurs the child views the world as essentially safe. However, after the betrayal, his view of the world will frequently change in a very drastic manner:

S/he now views the world as unsafe and everyone in it as a serious, potential threat and danger. He is likely to always expect the worst where others are concerned; this is a psychological defence mechanism to make him feel safer – the rationale behind it (conscious or unconscious) being that if he expects the worst of others, at least s/he will be prepared for being badly treated rather than being taken by surprise.

Indeed, he is even likely to treat people who have earned a reputation of life long integrity and moral rectitude with deep suspicion. In other words, he becomes very prone to underestimating people’s trustworthiness.

Because of this, he is likely to be perceived by others as paranoid and cynical: Why do you always insist on seeing the worst in people? is a refrain s/he may not infrequently be subjected to hearing, or: Why do you take such a jaundiced view of everything? is another.

The answer may be simple: in large part, it is likely to be due to the conditioning s/he was exposed to in childhood.

Indeed, research has demonstrated that significant childhood trauma may lead to an area of the brain, known as the amygdala, to be damaged, physically, and adversely, altering the brain’s development and priming the affected individual to be super-sensitive and hypervigilant in relation to a perceived potential threat.

Because the affected individual, through no fault of his/her own, finds it so exceptionally difficult to trust others, this makes the development of healthy relationships with these others impossible. This inevitably leads to a deep sense of loneliness, and, in all likelihood, concomitantly high levels of anxiety and depression.

How Can A Healthy Trust Of Others Be Redeveloped?

Whilst the affected individual may accept, on an intellectual level, that he has an unreasonably negative view of others, he may still find it all but impossible to accept this very same idea on an emotional level due to childhood conditioning (and, in some cases, due to damage to the amygdala (as referred to above) which is intimately involved in the brain’s processing of fear and emotion.

To rebuild a sense of trust, an effective therapy which may well prove helpful, which I have frequently, previously referred to on this site is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The stages most people go through in gradually developing a healthy (ie. neither naïve nor overly suspicious) trust of others are as follows:

  1. slightly on guard when we first meet someone new
  2. as we gradually get to know the person, we start to build an impression of their trustworthiness based upon the evidence available to us
  3. form a firmer opinion of their trustworthiness in light of ongoing evidence
  4.  revise and adjust this opinion, if necessary, in the light of continuing evidence

A rule of thumb tends to be to trust a person in accordance with the degree to which that person has so far proved to be trustworthy, no more and no less.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).