Children who have seen or experienced violence and trauma are often more at risk of being groomed for sexual abuse. Abusers can present as saviors to a minor who is struggling and feeling lonely. According to relevant domestic violence statistics, in 22% of cases, a child is a witness of domestic violence, while 30% to 60% of abusers hurt the child as well. The consequences can be ongoing, and grooming is frequently one of them.
Low self-esteem in children and adults who have been abused is reinforced by the idea that the victim is experiencing abuse because they have little or no worth. This narrative allows a groomer to appear nicer than others while still using low self-esteem as a tool. Recognizing the signs of grooming is one of the best tools we have for preventing it.
However, grooming is also a buzzword that can sometimes obscure the realities of sexual abuse rather than illuminate them. Especially in the case of teens with partners who are close to their own age, the line between one-sided predation and a mutually-desired relationship can be a grey one. This quick guide gives an overview of some common grooming red flags while attempting not to over-simplify the problem.
How abusers meet victims
Some abusers carefully choose and target their victims. Children with little or no parental supervision and low self-esteem are the most vulnerable. Those children are likely to react positively to a new adult friend, so they are easy targets. The offender will often tactically befriend the parents to get close to the child. People with religious authority, friends of the family, and other family members are some examples of trusted people in a child’s life who can have inappropriate intentions.
On the other hand this dastardly image does not always reflect reality. Grooming can also begin from a more innocent place, in which an older teen or adult can simply develop a close relationship with a child and without meaning to or planning to, escalate the relationship to something inappropriate. Premeditation is not a given in grooming.
Technology and social media also present potential threats. In some ways, it is even easier to groom via the internet, especially when the abuser is seeking images or video chat, rather than a face-to-face meeting. However, once again not all communications between adults and minors online are grooming behaviors. It’s important to remember that 90% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone already known and trusted by the victim.
In cases of premeditated grooming, an abuser may, after having established a close relationship, begin testing boundaries with both the child and their family guardian. Testing or outright crossing boundaries can look like moving from an innocent hug to one with greater contact and length. It can also present as giving gifts, particularly extravagant ones, for no obvious reason.
Testing boundaries can also come in the form of isolating the child, asking to spend more and more time alone with them.
Isolation is a boundary-crossing behavior that helps smooth the way for further abuse. A predator may isolate the victim from their family or friends and spend more time alone with the child. The abuser will make a child believe that they have a “special connection,” and care about them as much as or more than parents or guardians. At first, it may not seem like a red flag, but the more time the groomer has alone with the child, the more effective this method of grooming can be.
Isolating a child from any other support or relationship sets them up to have no one to tell about their abuse when it happens.
Child sexual abuse
In this stage, the abuser sexualizes the relationship with a child. Touching can begin innocently enough with hugs and other playful contacts like tickling and playing. This can escalate into sexual abuse in forms such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, inappropriate talk and physical contact. Physical contact is not a requirement for sexual abuse of a minor.
For instance, the abuser may initiate abuse by taking pictures of their victim. Sometimes beginning innocently with clothes or swimsuits on can escalate to underwear and nudity. Whether these are distributed for other’s consumption or just for their own, abuse has taken place because a minor cannot consent to having nude pictures taken of them.
Sexualization can also come in the form of exposing sexual organs to a minor or having them expose or touch their own bodies while the abuser watches. Obviously, sexualization of the relationship can also take the form of various kinds of physical sexual activity with or without penetration.
Controlling the message
Abusers have several tactics at their disposal to keep their victims quiet. Common tactics include shaming, intimidation, and withdrawal of affection or rewards.
While grooming a victim, an abuser can instill a sense of shame and secrecy for whatever inappropriate acts take place between them. Societal shame and stigma often helps to reinforce these feelings. Once the victim feels shame, it is easy for the abuser to threaten to tell others and shame them in public. This is particularly complicated if the victim experiences some amount of pleasure while being victimized.
Intimidation is another tactic used by abusers to keep victims from revealing their abuse. This often takes the form of threats of harm. Aside from threatening to (further) harm the victim, they may also threaten to harm parents, siblings, other family members and peers. Victims with siblings, particularly younger siblings, can feel obligated to take the abuse so the abuser won’t turn their attention elsewhere.
Withdrawal of affection and/or gifts is another cruel way in which abusers manipulate their victims. The most vulnerable children are the ones who lack parental support and attention, stable housing and income. A groomer can seem like a hero when they offer things like money, housing, drugs/alcohol, and affection. Once a victim becomes dependent it is easy to control them by threatening to or actually cutting off whatever support is being provided.
What can be done?
Grooming is a gradual process so it can be easy to miss warning signs. Educating both adults and children about bodily autonomy and consent goes a long way towards preventing abuse. Adults and children should also be aware of the red flags that can lead to abuse and exploitation. Grooming can be prevented by keeping the above warning signs in mind when introducing new people to a child’s circle.
There is a tendency to think of all children as too young to understand anything sexual, we also often seek to shelter them from concepts like abuse. When we do talk to children about sexual abuse, the information is often based in emotion rather than fact. Stranger danger panic has led to a great deal of misinformation being spread about the actual threats to children.
Comprehensive sex education for children and adults alike is an important starting point for avoiding grooming and abuse. Simple things like understanding consent and using correct names for body parts can help children to understand what is inappropriate and when to tell someone safe about what is making them uncomfortable.
Teaching children that it’s okay to say no to adults is crucial as well, especially if they’re uncomfortable with any physical contact, including a hug or a pat on the back.
Even with education and attention, grooming and abuse can still occur. Understanding and being able to identify the signs of grooming are things adults can do to protect the children in their care. Because the process is gradual and the inappropriate behavior looks innocent at first, it can be hard to spot concerning behavior.
Parents can prevent grooming by paying attention to other adults’ behavior around their children and reacting at the first warning sign. Moreover, building trust in relationships with family members will encourage the child to open up about any problem, including abuse.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, you can find resources and support here.