What is grooming?

Grooming is a process of manipulation and trust-building that a perpetrator will use to create an atmosphere where they can exploit a child. Grooming is often very subtle and difficult to name by other adults; typically a perpetrator will seem like a loving and attentive adult in that child’s life. The child’s reactions to this attention are the most telling indicator as to whether or not they are comfortable. Grooming often takes place before the act of abuse, or throughout the period of abusive behaviour.

It is important to note that perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) are often found in positions of trust and authority (examples include family members, family friends, leaders of after-school activities, teachers, etc.) and are often very socially adept and charming; the act of grooming includes not only winning the trust of the child, but of their parents or caregivers as well.

As such, parents of victimized children are often left feeling betrayed and feeling guilty that they didn’t see what was happening. It’s important to remember that the blame for the abuse should be placed on the offender, not the child or caregivers.

The process of grooming involves some, if not all, of the following six stages.

Stage 1: Targeting the victim
The offender targets a victim by sizing up the child’s vulnerability—emotional neediness, isolation, and low self-confidence. Children whose families are experiencing multiple challenges, where parents or caregivers are unable to supervise or be fully present due to a number of possible circumstances may make them a more likely target.

Stage 2: Gaining the victim’s trust
The offender gains trust by watching and gathering information about the child, getting to know his/her needs and how to fill them.  In this regard, sex offenders mix effortlessly with responsible and positively motivated caregivers because they generate warmth and genuine concern for the child. The offender may work on gaining the trust of parents or caregivers, and identifying their burdens/challenges in order to exploit them to gain access to the child.  Parents are often relieved to have “help” and/or to see their child connect with a caring adult so they can deal with other pressing challenges or basic needs.

Stage 3: Filling a need
Once the sex offender begins to fill the child’s needs, that adult may assume noticeably more importance in the child’s life and may become idealized. The adult could be providing the child with special attention that only they can give such as coaching, mentoring, specialized treatments, etc. Gifts, extra attention, time, and affection may distinguish one adult in particular and should raise concern and greater vigilance.  This stage can also involve breaking rules the child’s parents/caregivers have set (for example, allowing the child to smoke or drink, buying the child items the parents won’t allow the child to have) in order to create the stage for secret keeping and threats.

 Stage 4: Isolating the child
The grooming sex offender uses the developing special relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This isolation further reinforces a special connection and allows them to avoid oversight and scrutiny from others. Babysitting, tutoring, coaching and special trips all enable this type of isolation.

A special relationship can be even more reinforced when an offender cultivates a sense in the child that she/he is loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even parents, provide. Parents may unwittingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship between the child and the other adult.

Stage 5: Sexualizing the relationship
At a stage when sufficient emotional dependence and trust have been created, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs very slowly and often portrayed as innocent encounters. “Accidentally” walking in on the child or having the child walk in on them when one is naked or in a stage of undress, or creating situations (like going swimming) in which both offender and victim are less clothed or naked. There is usually a gradual pushing/intrusion of physical boundaries as well.  Games involving tickling, rough-housing, having the child sit on a knee or cuddle under a blanket, etc. Touching progresses slowly to see what the child does and how they react; this is how the offender determines whether or not to keep pushing further.

At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship.

Stage 6: Maintaining control
Once the sexual abuse occurs, offenders commonly use the child’s affection, secrecy, blame and threats  (and sometimes violence –  this may even extend to destroying the child’s favorite/comforting possessions, killing pets, etc.) to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence—particularly if the child to attempts to withdraw from the relationship.

Children in these entangled relationships—and at this point they are entangled—confront threats from the perpetrator that no one will believe the child or that the child was the aggressor.  The offender may threaten to end the relationship and to end the emotional or other benefits they associate with the relationship, whether it is the dirt bike the child gets to ride, the coaching one receives, special outings or other gifts. The offender may use the fact that if they tell someone the offender will be harmed as a means of preventing the child from telling others. The child may feel that exposing the relationship will humiliate and isolate them from others, making them feel less worthy and even more unwanted.

Breaking the Cycle
Sexual predators are extremely capable, charming, and manipulating. They are often successful in their attempts with multiple victims before they are caught, and while parents and caregivers often feel to blame for what happened, it is neither the fault of the child or the caregiver. Blame lies completely with the offender.

There are several ways to help empower children, leaving them less vulnerable to predatory behavior. These include:

  • Teaching children the proper names of their sexual body parts
  • Teaching children what kind of touch is and isn’t appropriate
  • Teaching children that they are allowed to say “no” to unwanted touch anywhere on their bodies
  • Letting children know that you are a safe adult to talk to, that you will always believe them, and that they can come to you with any problem for help

What to do if you suspect a child is being groomed
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