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6 Subtle Ways Child Predators 'Groom' Their Victims

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

What is “grooming” in child sexual abuse?

Grooming is the process of an adult establishing an emotional connection with a child (and sometimes the child’s family) in order to sexually abuse the child. Some classic grooming behaviors include:

  • Singling out a child as “special”
  • Befriending the child’s family
  • Isolating the child
  • Pushing physical boundaries slowly
  • Gradually exposing the child to sexual content

Contrary to popular belief, child sexual abuse seldom happens at the hands of a shadowy stranger — most child sexual abuse victims are actually abused by someone they know. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), of the sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator. Of this percentage, 59% of perpetrators were acquaintances and 34% were family members.

When we talk about perpetrators that are “familiar” to a child victim, we’re often talking about trusted individuals like family friends, neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, coaches and of course, family members.

But how are these trusted individuals able to get away with sexual abuse for so long? The answer, in large part, can be attributed to grooming.

Grooming is the process of identifying a child victim and establishing an emotional connection in order to eventually engage in contact the perpetrator finds sexually gratifying. Grooming can occur both in-person and online. In the latter case, an online groomer will often hide their true identity, posing as someone younger and contacting many children at once.

To shed some light on what “grooming” behaviors perpetrators use to target children, The Mighty spoke to Keisha Reed, LPC, a Georgia-based therapist who specializes in trauma and PTSD. Below you can read some classic (but subtle) ways child predators “groom” their victims.

Classic Grooming Behaviors

1. Singling Out the Child as “Special”

Abusers often go above and beyond to make their target victim feel special. This might include things like giving gifts or referring to them as a “best friend.” In families that have more than one child, Reed said the perpetrator won’t typically try to abuse every child, instead choosing to hone in on one victim.

She noted that in this stage of grooming, the child likes receiving attention and feeling special. These warm fuzzy feelings are often confusing for the child when sexual touching is eventually introduced into the relationship.

2. Befriending Family Members of the Child

Child predators groom children as well as their family members, giving themselves greater access to opportunities to be alone with the child.

Reed told The Mighty when the child sees the friendly relationship their abuser has with their parents or other family members, it can keep them from sharing what’s really going on behind closed doors once the sexual abuse begins. This may be because they don’t want to disrupt the family “peace” or feel guilty for having complicated feelings about an individual the family loves and trusts.

3. Isolating the Child

Once a trusting relationship with family and child has been established, an abuser will then look for times to be alone with the child. The predator might offer to drive the child to school or soccer practice, take the child out for ice cream or even babysit.

A predator may isolate the child emotionally by reinforcing the idea that they are the only one that truly understands what the child is going through — even more than the child’s parents. This kind of manipulation can keep a child from opening up to other people about what’s going on.

4. Gradually Exposing the Child to Sexual Content

One of the reasons grooming can be so effective in trapping a child is because of its gradual nature. The perpetrator will start to “turn up the heat” so slowly that the child adjusts and adjusts, often without realizing the extent of what is happening.

“It typically doesn’t happen all at once. Grooming behaviors take place first to just lower the child’s inhibitions, to make them feel comfortable,” Reed said. “Then they might start with a picture of the child, maybe in their underwear, or even showing the child a picture of a naked person. It kind of starts like that before any actual physical contact begins.”

Once the child has been exposed to visual sexual content, the perpetrator may start to introduce sexual touching, the intended outcome of the grooming process.

5. Pushing Physical Boundaries

Reed told The Mighty a perpetrator will often start to push physical boundaries, starting with innocent touching that eventually leads to inappropriate sexual contact.

“They may push physical boundaries, you know, want to give hugs, or let the kids sit in their lap, or tickle the kid,” she said.

The perpetrator might also encourage activities that require undressing like going swimming or shopping. Once the abuser begins to sexualize the relationship, things can become very confusing for the child. A child may struggle with not wanting sexual contact, but finding their body responds to sexual stimulation in a way that “feels good.” They may also be confused by dual feelings of dreading and enjoying special treatment by this important adult in their life.

6. Encouraging Secrecy

Once a sexual relationship has been established, the perpetrator will often use secrecy and blame to guarantee continual participation and silence from the child or adolescent.

“[The perpetrator] may encourage a child to keep secrets from family members,” Reed told The Mighty. “You know, saying things like, ‘This will just be our little secret,’ or ‘Let’s just keep it between us.’”

The abuser may also use shame tactics to keep a child silent, especially if they are worried the child will expose the secret. They might say things like, “Your parents would be so ashamed of you if they found out,” or “If you hadn’t been such an affectionate child, none of this would have started.”

“Children often blame themselves,” Reed said. “They start to feel guilty, or they’re scared of what might happen if they do share. They tend to hide it because of shame, or the fear that they’ll be blamed. And typically, that’s how the abuser is able to get away with it.”

How to Protect Your Child From Sexual Predators

The impact of grooming can impact a person long after they leave childhood behind. According to the U.K.-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), people who were groomed as children are more at risk for experiencing mental health struggles like anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation. They may experience relationship difficulties throughout their lives and struggle with chronic feelings of guilt and shame.

If you are a parent or guardian, the thought of someone harming your child might feel anxiety-provoking and it might be tempting to think, “Well, I guess I can’t trust anyone.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, it’s true there are predators out there looking to harm children, and it’s important to look out for the signs, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people you can trust with caring for your children. Below we’ve listed a few important things you can do to protect a child in your life. The goal isn’t to live in fear, but to be prudent about who spends time with your child.

1. Know the Signs of Grooming and Child Abuse

If you are a parent or guardian reading this article, you’re already taking an important step in protecting your child. Educating yourself on the signs of grooming can help you spot potentially dangerous behavior.

In addition, knowing how a child can act as a result of child abuse is also important. Though these signs can be hard to identify at times, according to RAINN, some common classic warning signs include: shrinking away from physical contact, age-inappropriate sexual behavior, regressive behavior like thumb-sucking and changing hygiene routines (you can read more here.)

2. Talk to Your Child About Safety

Talk to your children about personal boundaries. For example, explain what kind of touching is OK, and what isn’t. For a creative way to broach this topic, check out the NSPCC’s  “P.A.N.T.S. rule.”

In addition to in-person safety, talk to your child about online safety and monitor their internet usage.

One of the best ways to keep your child safe is to grow an open and honest relationship with them so that if someone does violate their boundaries, they will be able to identify it and come and talk to you about it.

3. Trust Your Gut

If you get a weird feeling about an adult in your life, trust your gut. Limit time your child spends with that adult, and never allow them to be alone with your child. Worst case scenario, you remove your child from a harmless situation. Best case, you protect your child from an incredibly damaging one.

4. Report It

If you suspect a child is being abused, report it. You can call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or see where to report in your state by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database. It can be emotionally difficult to report, but it’s important to remember your actions could help protect a child who cannot protect him or herself.

For more information on child abuse, check out these stories from our #TraumaSurvivors community:

Originally published: July 12, 2019
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