What is the fawn response to trauma? | Dr Kathy NickersonMany of us know that when someone is faced with something scary, the fight or flight instinct kicks in. But did you know that there are actually 4 responses to trauma? They are fight, flight, freeze and fawn.

Today, we're going to focus on the fawn response and explore how it may be impacting you and your relationships.


How is the Fawn Response Defined?

The Fawn Response is defined as a response to a traumatic situation where a person chooses to become a soft, cuddly, people-pleasing fawn in order to calm down a big, scary person and re-establish a sense of safety and security.

The Fawn Response is essentially an instinctual response that arises to manage conflict and trauma by appeasing a non-nurturing or abusive person. In kids, fawning behaviors  develop as a way to survive or cope with a difficult parent. In adolescents or adults, fawning behaviors can develop in response to an abusive relationship with an intimate partner.

Fawns learn to overly accommodate the scary person so that they can manage their own fears. A fawn believes "if you're ok, then I am ok."


What causes the Fawn Response?

In a word: trauma.

The Fawn Response often begins in childhood when a child does not receive the love, care, attention or compassion he deserves. As a result, he learns to please, stay out of the way, not cause problems, not speak up, and soothe the angry parent or caregiver.

You can imagine it like this: a child is sitting at home playing, when all of a sudden, mom comes in the door and she's tired, angry, and yelling. The child is scared and doesn't know what to do, so he chooses to take care of mom and fawn all over her. The child might say, "Hi Mommy, can I help you? Do you want me to cuddle with you? Do you want me to get your slippers? Tell me what I can do to make you happy!"

The child learn that to feel safe, he needs to help mom calm down and be happy.

The child feels responsible for mom's feelings and this leads to a life-long pattern of people-pleasing and codependency for the child. It also makes the child more likely to remain in abusive relationships as an adult.


What are the Fawn Response symptoms?

These are some common symptoms of the Fawn Response:

  • Difficulty with saying no
  • Having poor boundaries with your friends, family, co-workers
  • Feeling the need to make others happy and monitor their moods
  • Prioritizing other's needs above your own
  • Avoiding conflict by appeasing others
  • Feeling the need to constantly check in on other's feelings
  • Being concerned about always being liked and fitting in
  • Feeling the need to over-explain and justify your choices and actions
  • Constantly apologizing or taking responsibility for things that are not your fault
  • Over-sharing details about your life, thoughts, and behaviors
  • Accepting bad behavior from your partner
  • Remaining in unhealthy relationships with friends and family members
  • Feeling burnt out because it's too difficult and too exhausting to please everyone
  • Lack of identity and authenticity - feeling like you need to be who others want you to be, not who you actually are
  • Resentment and exhaustion - feeling that nothing is ever enough and that you give so much and that you're under appreciated


How to stop your Fawn Response:

If you find yourself fawning, don't worry and please don't beat yourself up. You are not alone and this is a common response to complex trauma. You didn't do anything wrong, you're not bad or silly or dumb for developing this response.

You started fawning as a way to cope with a very unstable situation. You did what you need to do to cope. And now that you know what you're doing, you can start making choices that will help you feel better.

To challenge your fawn response:

  • Be aware of your motivations - are you doing something because you want to or because you want to avoid a fight?
  • Accept compliments - don't dismiss them, don't make fun of yourself.
  • Set boundaries - say no when you're tired, you don't need to explain.
  • Say no more often - be kind and thoughtful, but stop doing things that you really don't want to do.
  • Resist over-explaining - you don't have to justify why you're saying no.
  • Resist checking in others all the time - other people's feelings and moods are not your responsibility.
  • Rest the need to constantly apologize - you're allowed to be human and make mistakes.
  • Respond authentically - say how you really feel and what you really think.
  • Express your true preferences - be honest about what you want.
  • Don't lie to make other people happy - it's fine to do what someone else wants, even if you don't really want to do that, as long as you're not pretending that you really love it.
  • Resist seeking approval of others - do what you believe is right, listen to feedback, and follow your true feelings.
  • Engage in productive conflict - have fair fights about your ideas and values.
  • Resist doing what others want or expect when it is not what you want.
  • Act independently, stand up for your preferences, resist codependent thinking.


How do I deal when my Fawn Response gets triggered?

If you find yourself fawning, I recommend sitting down and asking yourself a few questions...

  1. What is your version of this situation? What do you believe is true?
  2. How do you feel about this situation?
  3. How is this situation connected to things (people or ideas) you value?
  4. What do you need in this situation?
  5. What would you like to say or do, but feel to nervous to do so?
  6. How can you take action in a way that feels honest, true, good and kind?


How is the Fawn Response connected to codependency and narcissistic abuse?

Codependency is at the heart of the Fawn Response. In codependent relationships, one person gives up their sense of identity in order to become the caretaker for the other. This leads to a very unhealthy and unbalanced relationship, where one person is always doing things for the other, nurturing them, supporting and encouraging them to the detriment of themselves. The person receiving all of the nurturing learns to depend on this constant attention and feels helpless if they are not with their caretaker.

Unfortunately, narcissists, abusers, and people with Narcissistic PD or Borderline PD crave codependent relationships.

If you are worried that you might be in a codependent relationship, I highly recommend 2 books for you: Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend and Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. Both will help you make the powerful changes you crave.





Dr. K's NEW Book on Infidelity Recovery

The Courage to Stay - How To Heal From an Affair & Save Your Marriage


More Affair Recovery Articles

What If My Partner Is Having An Affair With Co-Worker

How To Get Your Partner To Stop Talking To the Affair Partner 

I Just Found Out My Partner Cheated, Now What?

Why Do People Have Affairs?

How Do I Tell Him That I Know He Cheated?

How To End an Affair - Sample Break Up Letter


All Healing from Infidelity Articles

See All Our Infidelity Articles