Anyone can engage in grooming, regardless of age, race, gender, social rank or religion.
In cases of child sexual abuse, an adult will show special favor to a child in order to abuse them later in the relationship. In some situations, an abuser may also groom the victim’s family or friends. In doing so, the abuser often gains more access to the child.
Grooming typically takes place before any abuse occurs. However, abusers may continue to use grooming tactics to further manipulate the victim while abusing them.
Sexual predators often groom and sexually exploit children. They may give their victims gifts, drugs, money, status and affection. In return, they demand sexual activities. As part of their grooming and exploitation, children are often tricked into believing they’re in a loving and consensual relationship.
Additionally, a victim may use the trust gained during grooming to rationalize their abuse. For example, a victim may view the relationship as romantic rather than abusive. Even adult survivors may struggle to recognize their childhood experiences as abuse.
Stages Of Sexual Grooming
Although there are different types of sexual grooming, there is a general pattern that many abusers follow:
Target the victim
Sexual predators often look for victims with certain vulnerabilities that may make abusing the victim easier. For example, a child who lacks friends or regular parental supervision may be more at risk for grooming and abuse.
However, children living in nurturing environments can also be groomed by abusers.
Gain the victim’s trust
Sexual predators will learn details about the victim and find ways to fulfill their needs. For example, flattery, attention and gift giving are all tactics frequently used to earn a victim’s trust.
Gain the trust of the victim’s family
Sexual predators will also gain the trust of the victim’s caregivers or family members to gain further access to the victim.
By gaining the trust of nearby adults, a predator also establishes a positive reputation. This can make it difficult for a victim to report sexual abuse or talk to others about their abuse. The victim may fear their accusations will not be taken seriously, especially if the abuser is already in a position of power. This is a common theme in cases of priest abuse in the Catholic Church.
Gain access and isolate the victim
Once an abuser establishes trust with their victim, they will often find ways to physically and emotionally isolate the victim. It is common for an abuser to try to convince their victim that they are the only one who understands and cares for the victim.
Sexualize the relationship
Once an emotional connection has been established, an abuser will start to sexualize the relationship. Oftentimes, this is done slowly to desensitize the victim and normalize the behavior.
An abuser may start by sharing explicit sexual content with a victim or discuss sexual actions or behaviors. They may also start touching the victim in seemingly harmless ways, such as hugging or tickling.
Control and conceal the abuse
Once sexual abuse has taken place, abusers will manipulate the victim to continue controlling the relationship. They may use threats or blackmail to ensure the victim doesn’t talk about their abuse.
Examples Of Sexual Grooming Behaviors
Sexual grooming can be difficult to identify. A series of seemingly well-intentioned actions by an adult may actually be sexual grooming behaviors, meant to build trust with a potential victim.
Sexual grooming may also look different given the age of the victim and the type of relationship an abuser intends to build with the victim.
For example, when targeting a younger child, an abuser may position themselves as an older friend or caregiver. When targeting a teenage victim, an abuser may exhibit subtle behaviors of a romantic prospect or mentor.
An abuser will alter their grooming behaviors to avoid suspicion of other adults and earn the trust of their child victim.
However, there are red-flag behaviors to watch out for that may indicate an adult is grooming a child.
Common Examples Of Grooming Behaviors
Attention-giving Grooming Behaviors
- Being overly interested in a child
- Finding ways to frequently be alone with a child
- Offering special privileges to a child
- Favoring one child from a family with multiple children
- Giving a child advice or acting as a child’s confidant
- Giving a child gifts
- Taking a child on a trip
- Communicating with a child privately online
Boundary-breaking Grooming Behaviors
- Bathing a child
- Walking in on a child undressing or using the restroom
- Touching a child in seemingly harmless ways, such as tickling, wrestling or hugging
- Engaging in activities with a child that involve little clothing, such as swimming or giving a massage
- Playing games with a child that involve removing clothing, such as “doctor” or strip poker
Sex-oriented Grooming Behaviors
- Teasing a child about the development of their sexual body parts
- Discussing sexually explicit information with a child
- Telling sexually explicit jokes to a child
- Showing a child sexually explicit content
Online Sexual Grooming
Today, many abusers leverage the internet or technology to groom their victims. Common platforms used for grooming include:
- Social media apps
- Texting or messaging apps
- Online forums or chat rooms
- Chat features in video games
Technology offers sexual abusers anonymity. Abusers can easily hide behind the mask of a phone number, email address, avatar or online profile. They may pretend to be younger, of a different gender and/or sexual orientation to build trust with a victim. Once trust is established, a predator can escalate the abuse.
Technology also offers multiple platforms for digital abuse. For example, an abuser may send explicit sexual content to a victim by text, email or chat.
Additionally, an abuser may ask a child to create and share sexually explicit content of themselves. This content, as well as any private information shared, may later be leveraged as blackmail for silence or sexual favors.
Online sexual grooming can be difficult to identify. It is important to speak with your child about what online grooming is and the signs of grooming. The more awareness your child has, the more likely they are to spot a predator’s approach.
Signs Of Grooming
Signs of grooming can be difficult to identify because they are often subtle. You may be able to spot grooming by identifying red-flag behaviors in adults.
However, you may also notice signs of grooming in the victim themselves. The victim may display common signs of sexual abuse or any of the following additional signs of grooming:
- The victim is secretive about how they spend their time. This may include their online activity.
- The victim is secretive about money or gifts they received.
- The victim begins using alcohol or drugs.
- The victim is in a relationship/friendship with an older person.
- The victim experiences emotional changes, such as becoming more withdrawn or anxious.
- The victim spends less time at home.
The Long-term Effects Of Grooming
A child who is groomed and abused may experience long-term effects of sexual abuse. At least one study found the grooming process added to the trauma experienced by child sexual abuse surivors. This trauma was even more pronounced when abusers used threatening or violent grooming behaviors.
Some common effects of sexual grooming include:
- Problems sleeping
- Problems with sex
How To Report Sexual Grooming
If you or a suspected victim is in danger, call 911 immediately.
Unfortunately, most sexual grooming behaviors are not illegal. Until abuse has taken place, there may be little that law enforcement can do. However, making sexual advances to a child or sharing sexually explicit content with a child are illegal and should be reported.
You can still report suspected child sexual abuse or suspicious grooming behaviors to your local law enforcement agency, child protective services or the associated organization. This may lead to more oversight or scrutiny of potential predators and prevent abuse.
For example, if you believe a teacher or school staff member is grooming a student for abuse, you may consider reporting the perceived grooming behavior to the principal or local school board.
In the case of digital abuse, you may be able to report the abuser or published explicit content to the platform or app itself.
Do You Suspect a Child Is Being Groomed?
Learn How to Talk to a Child Who Is Being Abused or Groomed
How To Prevent Grooming
Awareness of grooming behaviors is the first step to prevent sexual grooming. However, there are other ways to actively protect a child from sexual grooming.
- Talk to your child about consent.
- Talk to your child about keeping secrets. For example, explain that responsible individuals will not ask a child to keep secrets from their parents.
- Actively listen to your child. Ask questions and avoid judgemental comments. Doing so may help your child feel more comfortable coming to you with things they are worried about or ashamed of.
- Be selective about the information you share related to your child. Social media allows parents to share every moment of their child’s life. But, predators can leverage information shared for their own gain.
Learn more about preventing sexual grooming here.
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Michigan State University. (N.D.) Preventing Grooming by Child Sexual Predators [PDF].
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. (N.D.) Grooming.
Pollack, D. (2015, November 1). Understanding Sexual Grooming in Child Abuse Cases. The American Bar Association.
RAINN. (2020 July 10). Grooming: Know the Warning Signs.
Wolf, M.R., Pruitt, D.K. (2019). Grooming Hurts Too: The Effects of Types of Perpetrator Grooming on Trauma Symptoms in Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 28(3), 1-15. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2019.1579292
Meneo Group managing partner: Ron Meneo
Ron Meneo is the managing partner of The Meneo Law Group. With more than 40 years of experience, he represents clients across the country on a variety of complex legal matters, including personal injury due to institutional sexual abuse, unsafe pharmaceutical drugs and other practice areas. He is a recipient of Martindale-Hubbell’s prestigious AV® Preeminent Rating. He has also served as an editor and contributor for several legal journals.