Grooming is a tactic in which someone methodically builds a trusting relationship with a child or young adult, their family, and community to manipulate, coerce, or force the child or young adult to engage in sexual activities. The person grooming identifies vulnerabilities, erodes the child’s or young adult’s boundaries, and builds up to acts of sexual abuse and control while convincing the world around the child or young adult that they are safe in their care.
Typically, by the time abuse occurs, the individual has gained trust from the family and community and has access to alone time with the child or young adult. Due to the manipulation, children/young adults struggle to recognize and/or report the abuse. The secrecy around the relationship that the grooming has led to and the power imbalance allows for the abusive behaviors to continue. Because of its stealthy nature, grooming often goes unnoticed. Some survivors of sexual abuse explain that the grooming process was just as harmful to them as the abuse itself.
Grooming can take place in any type of relationship, but occurs most often in cases where there is a power imbalance. Grooming is discussed in the context of child sexual abuse, but happens whenever one person takes advantage of another’s vulnerability due to age, role, situation, or capacity to consent. These relationships include, but are not limited to, adult/child, teacher/student, employer/employee, mentor/mentee, or doctor/patient relationships. It also occurs in the context of human trafficking or teen and adult abusive intimate partner relationships.
“It’s not like he wore a sign saying, ‘I’m a sexual predator.’ He was that cool uncle.”
-Adam, RAINN Speakers Bureau, rainn.org/survivor-stories
What are some red flags that indicate someone is grooming?
- Targeting a specific individual or “type” of individual (particular age, gender, appearance, etc.)
- Building trust with families & communities to gain increased access to the child or young adult
- Building trust with the child or young adult
- Positioning themselves as a particularly strong and safe presence in a young person’s life
- Finding excuses to spend time alone with the child or young adult
- Isolating a child or young adult from caretakers, peers, and friends
- Requesting that the child or young adult keeps secrets from other caregivers and friends
- Pattern of unnecessary touch, such as back pats or massaging, putting an arm around them, etc.)
- Exposing the child or youth to sexual and/or age-inappropriate conversations and/or media
- Giving gifts to the child or young adult without an appropriate occasion for doing so
- Frequent contact with the child or young adult via social media or text
- Emotionally identifying with youth
- Taking excessive interest or engagement in children’s media
- Spending an excessive amount of time around youth
- Expressing unusual interest in youth’s sexual development, e.g. comments on body during puberty
“He was someone who was always on my side. When I would get in trouble with my parents, he would tell them that I should come over to his house for the night. My parents could sense something was off—it seemed odd that I was spending so much time alone with an adult. They even asked me about it, but I told them that everything was fine. I now realize that this was all an effect of grooming.”
-Pierre, RAINN Speakers Bureau, rainn.org/survivor-stories
What are some signs and symptoms of grooming abuse?
- Extreme mood swings and changes
- Sleep disturbances, such as nightmares
- Inappropriate and/or excessive sexual behaviors, conversations, or knowledge
- Avoidance or fear of specific places, people, or activities
- Decreased interest in school, work, friends, or hobbies
- Change in academic performance or behavior
- Increase in unexplained health issues, such as frequent headaches or stomach aches
- Being overly or fearfully obedient to other caretaker or people in positions of power
- Pain or infection to the genital areas of youth, especially if this occurs frequently
- Regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting in youth
“The grooming was the most devastating part of it. I was so young when it started. Psychologically, it had a huge effect on my personality and how I viewed myself.”
-Gail, RAINN Speakers Bureau, rainn.org/survivor-stories
If you suspect that child abuse has already occurred, it is your personal responsibility if you are a mandated reporter to make a report to the DCF careline. Become familiar with that responsibility as well as any other reporting mandates or policies that exist in your workplace.
There may be situations in which you may identify boundary-crossing or potential grooming behaviors, but do not have reason to suspect abuse has occurred. In these situations, it’s important to know how to intervene and how to create safe communities for preventing sexual abuse.
- Trust your gut. If a situation does not feel right, it might not be right.
- Ensure that any program where staff will be interacting with youth or vulnerable populations have a thorough screening process and strong internal policies regarding those interactions.
- Advocate that organizations create, update, and enforce policies outlining appropriate staff boundaries.
- Engage in ongoing training efforts as a staff to build an understanding of the issues of grooming and sexual abuse in order to recognize red flags and intervene appropriately.
- Be present and active during an incident you’re concerned about, and insert yourself in the space provided it’s possible and safe to do so in order to diffuse the situation and support the person you’re concerned for.
- Take someone aside to voice concerns if you see them pushing boundaries.
- Speak with with peers and supervisors if you see an individual pushing boundaries.
- Check in with a child if you see someone else push their boundaries in order to provide support at that time and to leave that door open for conversation in the future.
- Model healthy relationships and uphold boundaries to demonstrate healthy interactions in your community.
- Ensure that any older youth supervising younger children are adequately trained and supervised, and that youth engaging with their peers at any age are also properly supervised at all times. It’s important to note that 30-50% of child sexual abuse cases involve one child harming another.
This project was supported by Grant No. 15JOVW-21-GG-00684-MUMU awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.