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 perpetrator targets a victim by sizing up the child’s vulnerability (e.g. emotional neediness, isolation, family challenges, low self confidence). Research done with perpetrators indicates that they strateegically choose children and families with identified vulnerabilities and that they have consistent access to in order to build an (apparently) trusting and helping relationship.

Stage 2: Gaining the Victim’s Trust
The perpetrator gains trust by gathering information about the child, building a “special relationship”, and getting to know their needs. Confusingly, perpetrators mix effortlessly with responsible and positively-motivated caregivers because they exhibit a sense of warmth and concern for the child. Extravagant gifts, extra attention, excessive time, and affection may distinguish one adult in particular and could raise concern for greater vigilance. This stage can also involve breaking rules the child’s caregivers have set (for example, allowing the child to smoke or drink, buying the child items the caregivers won’t allow) in order to create the stage for secret-keeping and threats.

Stage 3: Filling a Need
Perpetrators will look for opportunities to be helpful and fill a need for their target. Perpetrators often work on gaining the trust of caregivers, and identifying their burdens/challenges in order to exploit them to gain access to the child. Caregivers 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. They may provide the child with something the caregivers cannot provide (childcare after school, tutoring, specialized treatments, etc.), resulting in that relationship becoming deeper and more idealized by the child.

Stage 4: Isolating the Child
Perpetrators use 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 a perpetrator cultivates a sense in the child that they are loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even caregivers, can provide. Caregivers may unknowingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship between their child and the other adult.

Stage 5: Sexualizing the Relationship
Once a significant trusting relationship has been created, the perpetrator progressively begins to sexualize the relationship. Desensitization occurs very slowly and is often portrayed as innocent encounters (for example, “accidentally” wlaking in on the child or having the child walk in on them when on e is in a stage of undress, or creating situations [like going swimming] in which both parties are less clothed or naked). There is usually a gradual intrusion of physical boundaries as well; games involving tickling, rough-housing, having the child sit on a knee or cuddle under a blanket are common tactics. Touching progresses slowly to see how the child responds; this is how the perpetrator determines whether or not to keep pushing further. At that point, the perpetrator 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, perpetrators commonly use the child’s affection for them, as well as secrecy, threats, and violence to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence, particularly if the child attempts to withdraw (for example, “no one will believe you”, destroying a favourite/comforting possession, threatening pets, etc.). The perpetrator may threaten to end the relationship, thereby ending the emotional or other benefits the child associates with that relationship. The perpetrator may use the fact that if they tell someone, the perpetrator 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. Several layers and factors keep children stuck in these abusive relationships.

Breaking the Cycle
Sexual predators are capable, charming, and manipulative; they are often successful in their attempts with multiple victims before they are caught. 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 perpetrator.

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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