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What Are the Warning Signs of Grooming a Child for Sexual Abuse?

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“Sexual grooming” of a child is a phrase that has entered more people’s consciousness in recent years with some high-profile sexual abuse cases covered in the media.

However, this behavior is more common than most people care to think. The disturbing facts are that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they enter adulthood. Half of these children at least are first groomed by the abuser.

Grooming can happen right before your nose if you are not aware of the warning signs. Abusers are often well-practiced at their techniques to avoid detection. Greater awareness of the types of behavior that constitutes grooming a child is the first step to helping prevent it.

So, here we take a look at the typical warning signs to be on the lookout for with children and the adults charged with caring for them.

What are the “red flags” with grooming a child?

Grooming is a slow but deliberate process, which can make it hard to detect. That is the idea, of course – so that the victim (and often the parents) believe that a genuine and innocent friendship has formed.

An abuser wants to gain trust with their victim as a means to get close and intimate with the child.

So, grooming often follows a similar pattern of behavior:

  1. Target the victim: the selection of victim is often based upon accessibility and vulnerability, e.g., low self-esteem, broken family life, etc.
  2. Develop trust and secrecy: gifts, attention, and sharing of secrets are often used as ways to develop a relationship and earn the trust of victims – and sometimes the primary caregiver(s) too.
  3. Isolate the victim: abusers will seek opportunities to spend time alone and initiate contact with the victim, physically and emotionally isolating them. This allows the trust to build and the training or “grooming” behavior to continue.
  4. Build desensitization and sexualize the relationship: sexual abuse often starts with seemingly innocent behavior like hugging. massaging or tickling. Over time, the boundaries will be tested and it escalates to increasingly more “daring” behavior like discussing sexual topics, playing sexual games or sharing inappropriate images.
  5. Attempted “normalization” of behavior: abusers often take steps to make their behavior (sleepovers and showering together, for instance) seem normal and necessary.
  6. Maintaining control: intimidation tactics, fear, and invoking sympathy may be used for the abuser to retain the upper hand and control the situation.

Recognizing any of these steps in a non-familial adult-child relationship should be a red flag. Unfortunately, abusers are often smart and quite subtle with their behavior and are skilled at avoiding detection.

Other potential signs of grooming for abuse

We’ve already covered many of the major signs. However, you should also be on the lookout for the following:

  • Constant flattering and attention-giving to a child who otherwise seldom gets praise
  • An adult (other than the parent) who becomes the sole provider of rides, a place to stay, sympathy, outings, etc.
  • Discussion of inappropriate topics
  • Providing cigarettes, alcohol, or other illegal substances for a child
  • Constantly sending secretive texts/emails, etc.
  • Private communication through social media
  • An adult who prefers the company of children to adults
  • Frequent offers of help to primary caregivers to gain time alone with the victim

Grooming of those closest to the victim

Grooming behavior may extend beyond the intended victim. Often, an abuser is aware that their actions may be called into question by protective parents and other members of the community so they will try to groom the family members and those whose suspicions may be roused.

Creating an aura of trust and respectability is all part of the grooming process because it helps to “normalize” the behavior of the abuser in other adults’ minds.

Often, abusers seem charming and friendly and “fit in” well with the local community on the surface. It reduces suspicion and may intimidate the victim into remaining silent about what’s happening.

This is why abusers are often people close to the family or in a position of trust and authority with the family.

The warning signs must be recognized and heeded if we want to reduce the risk of sexual abuse of children occurring.

Online grooming of children

Like with most things in life, grooming has moved online. In fact, the online world often facilitates grooming. Abusers create fake profiles and often pose as children or friends to win trust with victims.

Abuse may either occur online, using sexual imagery or stalking individuals – or move offline with meetings arranged between the abuser and the victim.

Parents need to monitor time online not only with younger children but with teenagers, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

How can you prevent sexual abuse and what should you do if it occurs?

The best approach to sexual abuse and grooming is prevention. Educate your children about risks and what the normal personal “boundaries” are and what to do if someone touches or speaks to them inappropriately. Teach them about the online dangers of abuse too.

Most people who interact with our children are well-intentioned and trustworthy and would never dream of harming a child. We shouldn’t turn everyone we meet into a potential abuser in our children’s minds.

Unfortunately, the exceptions to the rule can go undetected and may be given a free rein to practice their abusive behavior. By educating our children about acceptable boundaries and recognizing the early warning signs of grooming, everyone in the community is better prepared to prevent it.

Rest assured, if you contact the lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote with information on a case involving child sexual abuse, all the information provided will be treated confidentially, including your identity. Start with a free and confidential consultation.

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