Fight – Flight – Freeze – Fawn
Many people are familiar with the concept of the fight – flight response. When our central nervous system involuntary responds to a perceived threat, an acute stress response kicks in and each individual, depending on their own programming will respond accordingly.
Fight or flight, in its simplest form, is a survival response. On the perception of threat (real or perceived) the body creates a physiological response and activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones accordingly. These hormones prepare the body to respond to the threat, either to:
- Step up and fight it (FIGHT)
- To run away and get to safety (FLIGHT)
Think back, to pre-historic times, and imagine you are a caveman, going about your daily tasks, when a triceratops comes out of nowhere. The sight of this danger activates the sympathetic nervous system, which quickly releases cortisol and adrenaline into the body, which sends all blood to your limbs (and away from your organs) ready to fight it off and protect your home, or to run as fast as possible to safety until it has passed. The system is automatic, involuntary and is unconscious in it’s reaction.
As time has passed, and we have developed a deeper understanding of the body’s reactions, further categories have been added. After all, not all children (and adults) run or fight in a threatening situation. Our reactions to threats are all different, and understanding them can help us develop a deeper understanding of ourselves. The purpose of each response is to minimise or remove themselves from the threat which they are faced with. The body wants to return to the parasympathetic nervous system which is calm and neutral.
- Fight – Step up and fight it off
- Flight – Run away to safety
- Freeze – Unable to move, act or respond to a threatening event
- Fawn – Trying to appease the conflict, fix it or please others to stop it
So, why do some people react to things, and others don’t?
Our reactions to perceived events of threat may be actual or our body’s response to them. So, there may actually be a threat in front of us (for instance, someone threatening us) or our body may react to an event and feel it cannot cope (for example, hearing screaming and thinking it is dangerous).
Our reactions depend on situations, such as:
- Our ability to manage stress
- Our understanding of our ability to manage a stressor
- Our perception of an event
- Our resilience levels
- Our tolerance to stress
- Our sensitivity to stress hormones
- Our ability to activate the prefrontal lobes (reasoning, logic, problem solving)
- Previous life events – such as witnessing domestic violence, abuse, bullying etc
The fight response is a reaction to fight against the threat we are faced with (real or perceived). The body signals to react to the problem. This could be:
- Being told something we do not want to hear
- Being in a situation which feels threatening
- Hearing aggressive or threatening conversations
- Being around people who are arguing
A child or teenager with a fight response may:
- Square up or threatened aggressive behaviours
- Lash out or hit / kick
- Have a tight jaw
- Have clenched fists
- Cry or scream
- Attack the perceived threat
- Struggling to breathe
- Throwing things
- Complain of stomach aches or upset stomachs
- Stalk or get into the personal space of another person
- Aggravate a situation by taunting
- Glare at others
The flight response means that someone feels that they cannot win against the threat, so remove themselves from it as quickly as possible.
The child or teenager might:
- Be excessively fidgety or not be able to stay still
- Be on the move constantly
- Be restless and unable to relax
- Have twitching legs / arms
- Have darting eyes
- Be watching the door or asking where the exit is
- Be moving towards the door / windows
- Running without consideration of safety
The freeze response occurs where a child or teenager does not fight or flight and instead freezes to the spot. They do not know how to respond to the threat, so their body instead shuts down to protect itself. A child may describe themselves as being ‘stuck’ ‘frozen’ and may be completely unresponsive.
A child may:
- Be withdrawn
- Be unresponsive
- Holding their breath
- Being shut down or dissociating
- Be vacant / have a vacant expression
- Feel stiff, heavy, cold or numb or empty
- Become pale
- Complain of their heart being loud or hard
- Be unable to move
- May not react to your voice / touch / instructions
The fawn response is a reaction which occurs when a child or teenager feels that their only chance of reducing the threat is to please it. The fawn response wants to avoid all conflict and therefore they will accommodate everyone else’s needs in place of their own. The child may have:
- Experienced abuse
- Experienced neglect
- Been subjected to or witnessed violence
- Have a parent or carer/s who are narcissistic
Therefore, they may be hyper-vigilant to other people’s needs and desires, and have difficulty or feel guilty for expressing their needs or accepting help.
The child may be:
- Overly agreeable
- Being extremely helpful
- Try to calm a situation
- Beg / plead
- Trying to people please
- Excessive caring for others
- Unable to unwilling to express their emotions . thoughts or feelings
- Unable to say no
How can we use this to help children?
Being aware of the reactions that different children have can help us:
- Identify triggers and stressors
- Put in place emotional regulation strategies to calm the response (see our mental health care plans)
- Integrate somatic soothing activities into children’s routines (see our mental health care plans)
- Implement stress reduction activities into our routines
- Enhance executive functioning and cognitive skills
- Access therapeutic help for children
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