Child grooming is the process of befriending a child so a perpetrator can sexually assault or abuse them. Child grooming is one of the first steps in what is often a six-step process for abusers to gather interest, illicit trust, gain affection, and harm a child.
How does child grooming happen?
Grooming happens slowly, then quickly. Predators excel at what they do. As a result, almost no child can recognize they’re being groomed unless they’ve been told how. Parents and guardians are unlikely to notice the dangers, too.
Research varies on the stages and processes used by predators. But there are basic traits that break down into about six steps and six signs of grooming.
- Finding a victim
- Gain trust
- Help the victim
- Isolate the victim
- Sexualize the relationship
- Maintain the relationship and power
What do these stages of grooming involve?
Almost every child and teenager is at-risk because victims specifically target those with low self-esteem. Because kids are the most vulnerable to self-esteem issues, it is easy to find a victim in an age where social media sets expectations for “perfection” higher than any generation prior. This is where children are most in need of strong parental supervision.
Offenders will then seek to gain the trust of the victim by giving them attention, telling them what they want to hear, and offering them a sympathetic ear.
This leads the offender to help the victim by giving them money, gifts, and other benefits like trips and transportation. This can start as a few dollars for a drink or lunch, a trip to school or a park, and escalate into more lavish gifts like trips to amusement parks. Because most victims know their offender — often through family, church, or school — this gives little pause to other adults.
These trips also help the predator isolate the child. The child is alone in their car or in or near an empty room. This arrangement can also normalize the isolation to the child, making them think, “This person gives me rides to school all the time, no big deal”.
Because a lot of this communication and interaction can happen online, the sexualization of the relationship can happen much quicker. They tell girls and boys they’re “pretty”, “attractive”, or “sexy” online with alarming rapidity. This is a step toward sending nude photos, sexting, and arranging meeting locations for sexual encounters.
Once a child has fallen into this pattern, it seems normal on a gradual, step-by-step basis. Offenders will maintain control of the relationship by further isolating the child, swearing them to secrecy, and threatening to withhold the gifts, praise, and support the child relies on.
For the child who becomes trapped, even if they recognize what is happening is not normal or safe, they may withdraw further out of embarrassment or fear. Children may fear punishment or ridicule as a price not worth paying despite repeated sexual assaults, rape, or abuse.
For more on what parents can do to protect children and how child advocacy centers respond, read this post on the six signs a child is being groomed.