When we think about child sexual abuse, we may think that perpetrators of abuse are easily spotted.  In reality, many sexual abusers use grooming tactics that are not always easy to distinguish.  Before sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or trafficking occurs abusers may employ covert tactics in order to gain the trust of parents and children.


What is Grooming

According to the American Bar Association, child sexual grooming is “a method used by offenders that involves building trust with a child and the adults around a child in an effort to gain access to and time along with him/her.”  A predator builds trust with the parent or caregiver in order to access the child.  This can include dating the parent with the intention of gaining access to the child.  While any child can be a target of grooming, predators may look for children with certain physical or personality traits, vulnerable parents, or children who may lack attention from caregivers. The groomer may spend a long time, from months to years, grooming the child and building trust with the parents before sexual abuse occurs.


The National Center for Victims of Crime lists steps that grooming may include. These steps are identifying and targeting the victim, gaining trust and access, playing a role in the child’s life, isolating the child, creating secrecy around the relationship, initiating sexual contact, and controlling the relationship.   


Once the predator gains the trust of the child and parents, he or she may attempt to gain access to being alone with the child. The perpetrator will work to ensure secrecy is built around the relationship in order to prevent the child from telling anyone what is happening. Once an emotional connection and secrecy are created, the perpetrator may eventually initiate sexual contact. The initial contact may be seemingly mundane touching, which is used to desensitize the child and may gradually evolve into sexual contact.  Since the perpetrator relies on secrecy to continue to sexually abuse the child, they continue to remind the child not to tell for a myriad of reasons and that if they do tell anyone they will not be believed. Additionally, the child may feel ashamed or believe that they will be blamed for the abuse if they tell. The perpetrator may also threaten the child to ensure secrecy. 


Recognizing the Signs

The signs of grooming are generally subtle, such as offering to babysit the child, buying the child gifts, taking the child on trips, or simply showing the child special interest or attention.  In other cases, grooming may include threats or physical force. 


Signs of grooming may include the child or adolescent being secretive, having older boyfriends or girlfriends, having new things, such as phones, clothes, etc., or having access to drugs and alcohol.  In teenagers, signs of grooming may be brushed off as normal teenage behaviors.  However, unexplained changes in personality, behavior, and inappropriate sexual behavior may signal grooming. 


Unusual behavior can include becoming anxious, withdrawn, clingy, aggressive, changes in eating habits, nightmares, trouble sleeping, missing school, using drugs or alcohol, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.  



Grooming may be difficult to spot immediately, so prevention and education serve as the best defense.


A great prevention method is educating children. Children can be educated on body safety, on telling a trusted adult when something or someone doesn’t feel right, and on not keeping secrets. It is also important not to force children to show affection to family members.  Allow the child to decide whether they would like to give family members hugs, or if a high-five or other contact feels better.  The more children are allowed to listen to their body about what feels right and what does not, the more likely they are to alert a parent when something that doesn’t feel right occurs. For great information on providing this education to children, please visit The Mama Bear Effect


Another preventative measure is minimizing the opportunity for abuse.  Since predators may look for children who lack a strong caregiver presence, take an active role in your child’s life, behavior, and activities.  Many parents believe that it is safe to leave children alone with other family members, however child abuse is often committed by a family member.  If you do trust a babysitter, try to make unannounced visits to check for anything unusual.     


Another way to prevent abuse is by having conversations.  Talk to teachers, coaches, or others who are around the child consistently.  These adults may notice unusual behavior.  Since predators thrive on secrecy, it’s vital to keep open and honest communication with children and to ensure them that they will never be blamed for the actions of an adult. 



-Amber Johnson, MSW Intern

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