Grooming: Know the Warning Signs

One tool common to those who sexually abuse kids is grooming: manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. While these tactics are used most often against younger kids, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk.

Grooming can take place online or in-person. It’s usually employed by a family member or someone else in the victim’s circle of trust, such as a coach, teacher, youth group leader or others who naturally have some interaction with the victim.

Though grooming can take many different forms, it often follows a similar pattern.

  • Victim selection: Abusers often observe possible victims and select them based on ease of access to them or their perceived vulnerability.
  • Gaining access and isolating the victim: Abusers will attempt to physically or emotionally separate a victim from those protecting them and often seek out positions in which they have contact with minors.
  • Trust development and keeping secrets: Abusers attempt to gain trust of a potential victim through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that that they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret.
  • Desensitization to touch and discussion of sexual topics: Abusers will often start to touch a victim in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, wrestling and tickling, and later escalate to increasingly more sexual contact, such as massages or showering together. Abusers may also show the victim pornography or discuss sexual topics with them, to introduce the idea of sexual contact.
  • Attempt by abusers to make their behavior seem natural, to avoid raising suspicions. For teens, who may be closer in age to the abuser, it can be particularly hard to recognize tactics used in grooming. Be alert for signs that your teen has a relationship with an adult that includes secrecy, undue influence or control, or pushes personal boundaries.

Grooming Family and Community

Grooming behaviors are not only used to gain a victim’s trust, but often are used to create a trustworthy image and relationship with their family and community. Child and teen sexual abusers are often charming, kind, and helpful — exactly the type of behavior we value in friends and acquaintances. You don’t need to be suspicious of everyone who is kind to your child; most people are well intentioned and trustworthy. But you should be on guard that this type of behavior is sometimes just a mirage, a way for an abuser to gain your trust so they have more direct access to your child (and make it less likely that the child will be believed if they speak up about the abuse). You should also talk to your kids about risks and boundaries, and make sure they know that they can come to you if anyone crosses a line.

Online Grooming

Online grooming often involves adults creating fake profiles and posing as children or teens in order to befriend someone and gain their trust. This may be the first step towards sexual abuse or online stalking or harassment. You can learn more from InternetMatters.org about how grooming occurs, and how you can make a minor in your life safer from it. You can also find out more about how to recognize more warning signs of online grooming from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Rather than banning kids from going online, introduce more freedom as they get older, and make sure they are attuned to the risks and are comfortable talking to you about what they experience. As Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, recently told the Wall Street Journal, “The whole stranger-danger movement did more to create anxiety in children than it did to protect them,” said. “If you turn everyone you don’t know into a danger, you live in a pretty scary world.”

Survivor Stories

Read more from survivors and RAINN Speakers Bureau members about how they were groomed by predators and what parents should watch out for:

  • Adam’s Story: “It’s not like he wore a sign saying, ‘I’m a sexual predator.’ He was that cool uncle.”
  • Brian’s Story: “When I was younger, I didn’t want anybody to be mad at me. I didn’t want my abuser to be mad at me.”
  • Gail’s Story: “The grooming was the most devastating part of it. I was so young when it started. Psychologically, it had a huge effect on my personality and how I viewed myself.”
  • Pierre’s Story: “He was someone who was always on my side. When I would get in trouble with my parents, he would tell them that I should come over to his house for the night. My parents could sense something was off—it seemed odd that I was spending so much time alone with an adult. They even asked me about it, but I told them that everything was fine. I now realize that this was all an effect of grooming.”

How to Help

You can help keep kids and teens safer by learning the warning signs of abuse at rainn.org. To report sexual abuse of a child or teen, whether it occured in-person or online, visit childhelp.org.

To help you recognize warning signs or to get support if you find out a child or teen in your life has been abused, you can speak with someone who is trained to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. It’s free, confidential, and 24/7.

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