Written by Sophie Benitez, Disability Services Trainer and Educator
A common strategy of people who sexually abuse children and young people is grooming. Grooming is defined as a method that offenders use that includes building trust with a child or young person and the adults that are surrounding the child or young person to try to get access and be able to spend time alone with the child. In severe cases, offenders may use strategies of threats and/or physical force to sexually assault or abuse the child or young person. A more common strategy that offenders use is a selective approach made to build relationships with the child’s or young person’s family. In addition, the offender may take on a caretaker role, become friends with the child or young person or use their role of trust and the right to groom the child or young person and/or the family members of the child or young person. The offenders create and build relationships with the adults around the child on purpose or look for a child or young person that is not watched as much by adults. The child or young person being watched less by adults makes the chances higher that the offender’s time alone with the child or young person is welcomed to them and encouraged to them.
Why is it important to know about grooming behavior?
Parents and/or caregivers, family members, teachers, school staff, disability service providers, and medical and legal professionals need to know information about grooming behaviors. It is important to know information about grooming behaviors because grooming is a type of abuse and children and young people that are groomed can be sexually abused, abused online or in person by someone they know. Children and young people that are groomed could also be sexually abused, exploited, or trafficked. Children could also be abused by someone that does an act only one time or a stranger that builds a relationship with the child. Some children have a higher chance of being groomed, especially the children that are vulnerable. Children that have disabilities that are being cared for by a caregiver or a trusted adult or that are neglected can be targeted by groomers. Groomers will use any vulnerability to make the chance higher of a child or young person to count on and to become dependent on them to make the chance lower for a child or young person to speak up and tell a trusted adult about the grooming.
1. Creating relationships
The first common step of grooming behavior progression is creating relationships. The groomer will look to create a relationship with the child or young person, or more than one child and more than one young person. The groomer mostly spends their free time with children or young people and prefers to create relationships with children and young people rather than with adults. The groomer will choose one of the children and specially give that child extra focus and presents as a strategy to create a relationship between them. The groomer will take a unique curiosity in the child’s appearance and the clothes that the child wears, and the groomer may take lots and lots of pictures of the child.
2. Experimenting Boundaries
Groomers will try to experiment the boundaries of what the child is comfortable and not comfortable with. Sometimes the groomer will say inappropriate jokes or sexual jokes to see how the child will react. The groomer may also attempt to play sexual games with the child like pantsing, which means they have their pants and sometimes their underwear pulled down. Another game they may play is truth or dare, which is a game that requires more than one player and the players take turns asking the other players which question they want to pick, a truth question or a dare question and if the player picks a truth question they have to answer the question and tell the truth to the question and if the player picks a dare question the player has to do something that the other player asks them to do. The groomer will see the reaction of the child when they come into the child’s room or places where the child is normally expected to have privacy, like the bathroom. Grooming perpetrators make progress by having others stay silent and being willing to keep secrets. Experimenting with boundaries helps the groomer know if they can keep doing the grooming without getting caught by the child’s or young person’s parents, caregiver, or trusted adults.
Grooming perpetrators will try out the boundaries of touch with the child or young person. The groomer usually starts with touches that are not sexual like giving high fives and giving hugs. The groomer may slowly advance to inappropriate touches like touching a private part of the body and say that it was by accident even though it was not by accident to test and see how the child or young person will react. The groomer may kiss the child or young person or have the child or young person sit on their lap. The important point to highlight is the groomer will go from really innocent touching and advance towards more sexual touching so that they can see how the child or young person reacts.
Grooming perpetrators use the strategy of intimidation to keep the child or young person from speaking up and telling other trusted adults, parents, or caregivers about the grooming behaviors that are occurring. The groomer will start with experimenting how the child or young person will react to being blamed for a simple kind of thing. The groomer will see if the child or young person pushes back or tells their parents, a caregiver, or other trusted adult. The next step that the groomer may take is to advance with threatening the child or young person or making the child or young person feel guilty. A lot of times groomers use fear or embarrassment to keep the child or young person from telling other trusted people about the abuse. The groomer may use statements like saying to the child or young person that no one will believe them or threatening the child or young person with danger or danger to their family members or the people that they love to keep them from telling others that they trust.
5. Sharing Sexually Explicit Material
Grooming perpetrators frequently share sexualized material with the intention to make sex a normal kind of thing. The groomer will use sexual words without limits with the child or young person around them in the same place. The groomer will show sexualized pictures and/or videos. The groomer may also start a sexualized relationship through sending messages or sending texts first.
6. Secret Communication
Grooming perpetrators are going to look for any kind of ‘secret’ pathways to communicate with the child or young person in secret. A lot of the times the secret interaction starts online. The groomer usually supports all texting, all sending of emails, and all phone calls to be kept secret. Something to remember is that grooming perpetrators grow and survive in having others keep secrets so the groomer is always going to support and encourage the child or young person to keep everything a secret.
What to do if you recognize grooming behaviors happening to your child or a child, young person, student, service recipient, or a neighbor’s child
It is common to read these grooming behavior signs and recognize people that do some of the things listed above in non-abusive interactions that do not mean that the person is a perpetrator grooming a child or youth.
The goal of talking about and learning about the grooming behavior is to make your intuition strong and to help you to be attentive. With the disclaimer being informed, if you ever see someone doing the grooming behaviors and you feel like there is something that is wrong you can use a strategy called “Confronting with Kindness” to help protect the person that you are concerned about. The strategy of confronting with kindness only has two steps.
The Two Step Strategy of Confronting with Kindness
Step 1: Move the person to the side and explain to the person that you think may be doing the grooming behaviors about the boundaries and limits that you have put into place for the person that you are concerned about and the reasons why you have those boundaries and those limits set in place.
Step 2: Ask the person that you think may be doing the grooming behaviors to support you in the boundaries and limits that are in place for the person that you are protecting and concerned about. If the person that you think may have been doing the grooming behaviors did the grooming behaviors without knowing and meaning to do it, they will possibly be very sorry and in the future keep the boundaries that the person has set into place.
If the person actually is a grooming perpetrator they will be put on high alert and it is rare that they will keep grooming the child or young person. If the grooming perpetrator knows that you are watching them, they will usually stop coming at the child or young person or the person that you are concerned about to groom them. The number one thing to remember is that you are responsible to stay in the loop and take an active part in the life of the child. The simple actions that you take to stay in the loop can be what protects the child from danger.
What can we teach our children and students about grooming behavior?
- Boundaries and their body, specifically body autonomy
- Report any treats or gifts that someone gives them (even from someone they know) to their parents, a caregiver, or a trusted adult right away
- Teach the difference between secrets and surprises and that secrets should never be kept from their parents
- Report whenever they are alone with an adult (it doesn’t matter who the adult is, even family members) and the interaction they had with the adult
If you feel that your child or student has a hard time talking about something, sit down with them and patiently help them through to talk about what’s going on and express themselves. Push through any feelings that you might have of nervousness or embarrassment and let the child or student know that you want to talk with them. The more that children and students are conscious and aware of grooming and grooming behaviors the higher the chance will be that they will work with you to identify a person that is using grooming behaviors before the grooming progresses and abuse actually happens.