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The hidden fawn response!

Understanding children's behaviour - the hidden fawn response

Welcome to the Child Behaviour blog- 

As parents we often struggle to understand our children's behaviour, I am sure you agree. If you have been with me for a while, you will know that I often talk about how stress impacts a child's behaviour. While many of us are familiar with the 'fight, flight, or freeze' reactions to stress, another less talked about but equally significant response to stress is the 'fawn' response. You may relate to this, I certainly do.

This blog will look at the fawn response and explore what it is, why it happens, how it affects children's behaviour and what we must do to prevent our children from experiencing the long-term damage it creates.

Behind every fawn response is a story of survival, not just a desire to please.

The fawn response 

The fawn response is when we put other people's needs before our own.

For example: During a stressful day that perhaps included arguments, conflict, distress or trauma, your child is the epitome of helpfulness, assisting with chores, being nice to you or soothing a sibling. 

They aren't just trying to be the 'golden or good child'. It's the 'fawn' response at play. Your child believes blending in and accommodating can ward off further tension. 

Essentially, they're trying to keep the peace to avoid the stress that conflict brings. Children are incredibly attuned to their surroundings. 

Some children might say to themselves in homes where tension, disagreements, or other stressors are frequent: "If I just stay quiet and helpful, maybe things will calm down and get better."

Spotting  the signs

While appearing perfectly behaved and eager to please, many children often mask deeper emotional struggles. 
This compliant exterior can hide the following:

  • Hesitation to express true feelings.
  • ​Anxiety about potential conflicts.
  • ​The constant need for validation or reassurance.
  • ​Being a people pleaser, often saying, "Sure, whatever you want."
  • ​Tendency to over-explain or over-apologise.
  • ​Avoidance of conflict, threats, or danger at all costs.
  • ​Intense guilt when saying no or setting boundaries.

The long-term impact

Growing up as people-pleasers, these children often sideline their needs to maintain harmony. They lose their sense of self and self-love. This can lead to challenges in asserting themselves in future relationships or workplaces. They might suppress genuine emotions and remain hyper-alert to potential conflicts because they feel unsafe.

Supporting  your  child

How often do we, as parents, misinterpret our child's eagerness to please as mere good behaviour, overlooking the deeper emotional struggles they might be facing?  By recognising and addressing the fawn response, you're not just reacting to their behaviour but actively creating a nurturing environment. Through understanding, you're paving the path for your child to grow into a confident and self-aware adult. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Create a safe environment where they can share their feelings without fear of judgment.
  • Offer reassurance that their worth isn't tied to compliance.
  • ​Seek professional support if you think it will help.
  • ​Reduce stress levels at home.
  • Help them understand the fawn response and to identify and articulate their emotions.
  • ​Teach them how to set and respecting personal boundaries.

Emma's story

Working with a parent newly separated from a high-conflict marriage, Mum wanted to help her daughter to come out of her shell and be more relaxed.

Mum noticed that her 15-year-old daughter, Emma, often went to great lengths to avoid conflicts, especially with her friends. Whenever there was a disagreement about where to hang out or which movie to watch, Emma would quickly give in, even if she had a different preference. She'd come home sometimes, visibly upset, but would brush it off, saying:

"It's okay, Mom. I want everyone to be happy."

One evening, after Emma had reluctantly agreed to attend a party she wasn't keen on, Mum decided to have a heart-to-heart with her. They sat down with a drink, and she began sharing a story from her teenage years and how she used to be a people pleaser in the hope her friends would like her.

Mum talked about how her own home life was full of drama, and to cope with the stress this caused, she would please everyone to try to keep the peace.

She explained how she thought her reaction was the fawn response, how it's a natural coping mechanism and how it led her to suppress her true feelings. She emphasised the importance of balance - it's okay to compromise sometimes, but it's also essential to voice your feelings and preferences.

They talked about how mum learnt to use "I" statements, such as "I feel" or "I prefer," which helped he to talk without sounding critical.

Over the next few weeks, Mum noticed a change. Emma started voicing her opinions more, not confrontational, but in a manner that showed she valued her feelings.  Emma came home smiling one day, sharing how she had suggested an alternative plan of going to a party to her friends, which they all enjoyed, instead of her usual way of keeping silent.

Mums understanding approach, open communication, and practical guidance helped Emma recognise her fawn tendencies and equipped her with tools to choose healthier responses.

As parents, our role is to guide, support, and provide a safe space to learn, ensuring that our children evolve into emotionally intelligent and self-aware individuals. 

Every child is unique and our understanding and compassion can create a loving, healthy connection with our children.

Drop me a message to let me know what you think or join us on facebook to join in the conversation.

All the best, 

Ruth Edensor

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