Grooming refers to the subtle, gradual, and escalating process of building trust with a child. This process may take place over weeks, months, or even years before any abuse takes place. Persons planning to sexually abuse children often start by grooming adults to ensure that their time with the child is welcomed and encouraged.
The following outlines the possible progression that an offender may take while grooming:
Building trust: befriending a child, family, and community, and gaining their trust.
Testing boundaries: through telling inappropriate jokes, roughhousing, backrubs, tickling, or sexual games.
Desensitizing: moving from non-sexual touching to “accidental” touching. This often happens over time so that the child is gradually desensitized to the touch.
Manipulating: using the child’s fear, embarrassment, or guilt to manipulate them not to tell anyone about the abuse.
Confusing: making the child feel responsible for the abuse.
In addition to those listed above, offenders may use additional strategies in grooming adolescents:
Displaying a common interest: in movies, music, sports, video games, etc.
Identifying: the offender may appear to be the only one who understands or identifies with him/her.
Showing affection: the offender may fill the adolescent’s increased need for affection.
Giving gifts or special privileges.
Breaking rules: the offender may encourage the adolescent to break rules. This may later be used to blackmail the adolescent into staying silent about the abuse.
Communicating outside of their given role: the offender may communicate with the adolescent outside of their given role (e.g., teacher or coach) through texting, emailing, or calling.
Adapted from Holly Ramsey-Klausnick, Ph.D. Used with permission.
What to Watch For
While none of the indicators listed below necessarily indicate that a person is grooming a child or family, they are things to watch out for and ask questions about. Pay particular attention when an adult or older youth:
Seems overly interested in your child and creates opportunities to spend time alone with him/her.
Refuses to allow a child to set their own limits around touch or bathroom privacy, or makes fun of a child that does try to set limits.
Insists on hugging, kissing, touching, tickling, wrestling, lap sitting, or holding a child even when the child resists.
Gives special privileges or gifts to your child.
Is overly interested in the sexual development of a particular child/teen, and/or makes comments about their bodily changes.
Befriends your family and shows more interest in a relationship with your child than with you.
Plays with your child in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
Seems “too good to be true” (e.g., babysitting for free, taking your child on special outings).
Frequently offers to babysit for free, seeks time alone with a child, and takes child on overnight trips as often as possible.
Spends more spare time with children, rather than with peers. Elevates child to “adult status” in the relationship.
Offers alcohol or drugs to children or teens when no other adult is present.
Has a “special” child friend, but no close adult friends.
Encourages silence and secrets with a child, and tests child’s ability to keep secrets.
Talks about age-inappropriate sexual issues with a child, tells dirty jokes, and calls them names like “stud,” “slut,” “sexy.” Exposes them to porn.
Allows children or teens to get away with forbidden behavior in order to look like “the good guy/person/parent” to them.
Makes themselves “Pillars of the Community,” and verbalizes hatred toward sex offenders. Is helpful and polite.
Sets things up so child looks like a liar/makes other parent look bad.
Creates opportunities to be around your child outside the context of their given role.
“Protecting Your Children: Advice from Child Molesters,” Center for Behavioral Management, Beaverton, OR, and “Let’s Talk,” Stop It Now! Northampton, MA