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Understanding Fawning - The trauma response child-therapists need get familiar with

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In 2014, Psychotherapist Pete Walker coined the term ‘Fawning’ in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving”. In his work, Walker observed that Fawning is the 4th Trauma response (along with Fight, Flight, Freeze). Although, PIP Solutions would argue that Fawning is perhaps the 5th response, as the Dorsal State of “Collapse” needs to be recognised when thinking about protective responses.

Walker describes how fawning occurs when people “seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.”

Fundamentally, Fawning is a protective response wherein someone has a conditioned drive to appease another when feeling threatened. Children who have experienced a non-nurturing parent/carer or early traumatic experiences (abuse and/or neglect) may respond to their caregiver by holding back their opinions and desires; agreeing with and telling carers what they think they want to hear; and pre-empting their carers wishes.  The response, to avoid conflict, prevent abuse or keep their non-nurturing carer near to them.

Fawning is a survival response, which will be part of a successful approach for a child in an environment which feels threatening and requires them to push away their own emotional needs to illicit calm and appeasement in their adult caregiver. “If I make you feel good and forget about my own needs, we can all get along and I can remain safe.” For children, fawning behaviours can become maladaptive survival or coping responses which can manifest into co-dependency in relationships later on in life.

Walker describes how Boundaries of every kind are surrendered to mollify the parent, as the parent repudiates the Winnecottian duty of being of use to the child; the child is parentified and instead becomes as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can: housekeeper, confidante, lover, sounding board, surrogate parent of other siblings, etc”.

In a recent article, Sam Cummings (www.herewithyouparenting.com) notes that Fawning allows the imitation of a ‘safe and social’ ventral vagal state. “We might act in a way that is friendly, agreeable, even funny, even though we are feeling angry or scared (threatened)” continuing .….…. “When it isn’t safe to fight or flee, then pretending to agree with, and perhaps even flatter, the source of ‘threat’ can be a way of achieving safety.”  A child who achieves this will appear less activated to the adult and so they will be less likely to turn on the child and might even feel relaxed enough to allow the child to move on (go into ‘Flight’).

So how can we therapists, identify and work with this in the therapy room? Firstly, consider whether your clients are engaging in Fawning stress responses with you. Whilst you are doing everything you can to provide your client with a felt sense of safety, is it possible that the child is in fact feeling highly dysregulated and so using all their might to be the compliant client?

For those working in schools, do you have clients where the teacher or SENCO has a very different story about the child’s emotional regulation, to the carer at home? Is it possible that the child has adapted protective strategies to be as good as possible at home and falls apart at school?  This can also work the other way; How many of our clients are ‘angels’ at school and fall into tantrum dysregulation, the minute they walk through their front door?

Notice how you are feeling in sessions. Does there seem to be incongruence between your client’s presentation (smiling face, compliant manner, tidy playing) with what they are playing out or HOW YOU FEEL? Are you wondering why this seemingly calm child is making you feel activated yourself?

Child-Centred therapists offer a unique opportunity to show the child that they are curious about their inner world. We reflect, we model, and we mirror. All of this shows our clients that they can (if they choose) express their needs and desires without consequence and that they do not have be ‘good’ as they cannot be ‘bad’.