In the context of crime, grooming is the act of gaining someone’s trust by building an emotional bond for the purpose of sexual abuse, exploitation, or trafficking. Often, abusers groom their victims, whether children, teens, or adults, over long periods of time by gradually building trust. The grooming process is effective because of its subtlety. Many times, victims don’t recognize that grooming has taken place until they look back on their experiences. When you’re a mother, an aunt, or a friend watching out for a child or teen, there are grooming warning signs you can spot in the victim and the abuser.
Identifying When a Child is Being Groomed
When a child is being groomed, particularly a teenager, here are a few signs to look out for in the potential victim’s behavior:
- Being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when online
- Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
- Having extra money or new things, such as clothes or a new phone, that they can’t or won’t explain
- Underage substance abuse
- Spending more or less time online or on their devices
- Being upset, withdrawn, or distressed
- Sexualized behavior, language, or an understanding of sex that’s not appropriate for their age
- Spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time
How Perpetrators Groom Children
Abusers develop grooming behaviors to gain the victim’s trust, but they also seek to create a trustworthy image and foster a relationship with the victim’s family and/or community. Abusers are often kind, charismatic, and helpful. These are just the kind of people we invite into our lives and who may escape notice as abusers. You shouldn’t be suspicious of everyone in your circle; however, you should be on guard. Here are a few classic behaviors groomers use to ingratiate themselves with their victims’ communities.
- Perpetrators seek to form relationships with their victims, particularly with children. In this case, they will single out one child as “special.” He/she will be more interested in spending time with this child and will give the child special attention and/or gifts. They may also take special interest in the child’s appearance and want to take pictures of him/her.
- Abusers test boundaries of young adults’ comfort levels. These tests may look like off-color or sexualized jokes or sexualized games, including pants-ing, truth or dare, or strip games.
- Perpetrators will push the boundaries of touch with children or teens. They’ll start off with non-sexualized interactions, such as high fives and side hugs. However, this touch will slowly progress into grazing certain parts of the body, laps sitting, and/or kissing.
- Perpetrators use intimidation to keep their victims silent and to prevent them from reporting the abuse. Again, they’ll begin with small acts. They’ll blame a child for something simple — a spilled glass, a broken vase — to see their reaction to being blamed. If the child doesn’t push back, the perpetrator will progress into larger and larger secrets.
Abusers will also look for ways to communicate with kids and teens in secret. These interactions often unfold online via text, emails, calls, and/or chat rooms. Online environments are fertile grounds for perpetrators to groom their victims. Adults often create fake profiles and post as young adults to befriend a child. Appearing as a peer rather than an adult helps the perpetrator gain the child’s trust.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers the following as a few warning signs of grooming:
- Intentionally moving their communication with the child from a public online platform to a private one (such as video chat or messaging apps)
- Pretending to work for a modeling agency to coerce the child into offering sexually explicit images
- Hacking the child’s online account to steal sexual images or videos
- Threatening to create and share sexual images or videos of the child using digital-editing tools
- Saving sexually explicit conversations with the child and threatening to post them online to illicit the child’s secrecy
It’s impossible to create a completely safe environment for your child online; however, it’s vital you help them understand what’s appropriate behavior (and what isn’t). To fight back against online grooming, and any of the types described here, it’s also vital your child feels open to talk to you about what they’ve experienced and you’re able to have difficult conversations.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It offers resources on how to spot abuse as well as more information on how to identify grooming. To report sexual abuse of a child or teen, whether it occurred in-person or online, visit childhelp.org.