According to the NSPCC*, grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.
Children are often groomed before they are sexually abused. This is done to gain trust, and to isolate the child so that they won’t speak out about the abuse when it happens. At first they may be tricked into thinking they are in a safe and supportive relationship or friendship. Many children or young people who are abused may not even know it’s happening or may feel they have no choice but to be abused due to the manipulative nature of the grooming process. It can be hard to identify when a child is being groomed until after they have been sexually abused, because grooming behaviour can sometimes mirror normal caring behaviour, but of course, this is not always the case.
A person who intends to target children will try to gain their trust by regularly spending time with the child, ideally alone or without the presence of other adults. They will befriend the child, provide support and will tend to side with the child. For example, an adult who is trying to groom a child will listen to the child complain about how unfair it is that their parents won’t allow them to do or have something, will sympathise with the child and agree that their parents or trusted carers are not acting fairly towards the child, and then will display compassion toward the child and allow them to do or have whatever it is that they wanted their parents to allow. An adult who is grooming a child will try to gain their trust, and will often ask the child to keep secrets, to prepare them for being exploited or abused.
A groomer can try to bait a child or young adult with gifts, special treatment, treats that they might not normally have access to, etc. Remember that ANY child can become a victim of grooming, and this applies to boys and girls.
It’s important to mention that most types of child abuse or exploitation involves a perpetrator that is already known to the family or the child. It’s much more likely that abuse will happen by someone who is already known to the child, rather than by a stranger.
It can be tricky to identify a person who might want to abuse a child, but there are definitely warning signs. Remember that when your children are involved, it’s best to play it safe and err on the side of caution. Better to be safe than sorry.
Building a solid relationship with your child is of course important, but there are many other signs which can help you prevent or even stop grooming and protect your child(ren).
Know the Warning Signs
- Repeatedly offering to care for your child for free (when they would normally charge for this)
- Persistently trying to be in physical contact with the child (hugs, kisses, tickling, or just excessive general touching), especially when the child isn’t interested
- Tries to bribe a child or children with gifts (‘I’ll give you chocolate if you ___’)
- Trying to isolate your child (from other children or without the presence of any adults)
- Regularly invites kids to spend time alone at their home, enticing them with the latest video or computer games, toys, gadgets, etc. – especially an adult who does not have children of their own
- Repeatedly singling out a specific child or children (in any setting), and offering them praise, gifts, or special treatment that they do not give to others
- Asking a child to keep secrets from other adults, their parents, etc.
- Insistence on regularly spending time alone with the child
- People who make inappropriate comments about a child’s looks or body, or sexualise a child or a child’s features or behaviour
- Undermining a parent’s authority by letting children do things or have things that their parents don’t normally allow (or have explicitly forbidden)
- Regularly trying to contact or speak to your child directly (for older kids this can be via the internet, text, WhatsApp, etc.)
Behavioural Changes in Your Child Can Also Be Warning Signs of Abuse or Grooming
- Sudden excessive secrecy
- Spending time with an older crowd, or has an older boyfriend or girlfriend
- Going missing for extended periods of time or constantly being unreachable when out
- Becoming extra defensive when questioned about who they’re spending time with or what they’re doing with their time
- Suddenly having lots of new things (money, clothes, gifts) which they aren’t able to explain or justify
How to deter and prevent abuse
- Talk to your children – abusers don’t want to exploit children who will speak about the abuse. If an abuser suspects that your child openly communicates with his or her parents about his body, sexual health, etc., it’s a huge deterrent
- Educate your children about sexual health and the dangers of untrustworthy adults (and other children), so that they know what normal touch is and what is unacceptable
- Teach your child that it’s OK to say no and that they do not have to trust someone just because they’re an adult or a known relative, family friend, teacher, authority figure, etc. Explain why and that they cannot just say no to all authority figures or adults, but should always say no if something feels wrong or uncomfortable, if an adult asks them to keep secrets from their parents or family, or if there’s any touching or activity that makes them uncomfortable. Reinforce the fact that it’s OK to say no even if it’s to someone they know
- Keep a close eye on young children at ALL TIMES. Never leave young children unsupervised
- Be aware, be present, be available, be involved
- Don’t display your child’s name on his or her external clothing or property
- Don’t share too much detail on social media about your children (for example, their names, hobbies, extracurricular classes they attend, where they go to school, etc.), because a groomer or potential abuser might use that information to manipulate your child into thinking that he or she knows them or can trust them
- Teach your child that there should be no secrets about their private parts – they can always tell you anything
- Be extra vigilant with vulnerable children, as they can be targeted frequently by groomers or paedophiles
- Don’t allow an adult to isolate your child or children (for example, at a party or family event). If someone tries to lure your child away, join them. Be present. This sends a big warning signal to a groomer that you are involved and that abusing or exploiting your child will not be straightforward
- Teach your child that if someone is offering something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is (for example, traffickers will often offer young adults promises of riches, fame, travel, in exchange for a job or a task, and once the young person has been moved or is isolated, they find out that they’re in a dangerous situation)
- Teach your child that people they meet online might not be truthful about who they say they are
- Make sure your child knows never to arrange a meeting in person for someone they have met online (or via an app, etc.)
- Teach your children not to trust ‘tricky’ people – for example, an adult really shouldn’t be asking a child for help in most cases
- Make sure your child knows that he or she can talk to you about anything
- Make sure your child knows that he or she can call you at any time if they need help or need to be picked up or taken away from a dangerous situation
- Encourage your child to speak out if something doesn’t feel right. Remember that a child might not even know something is wrong if they are being abused or groomed so it’s important to discuss potential risks.
- Create an environment where your child feels comfortable coming to you and talking to you about anything. Children have big imaginations and often tell tall tales or make up stories, which is developmentally normal. Instead of discrediting your child’s made-up stories, or calling them out for making things up, play along or ask questions. You want your child to know that you will believe them if they come to you with bad or shocking information