Child Grooming: Stages and Behavior to Watch For

Kevin BiniazanMay 12, 2021

Child grooming occurs when an adult befriends a child in order to develop an emotional connection and trust, lowering the child’s inhibitions in order to perform sexual abuse. Grooming can extend to the child’s family, building a sense of confidence so that the family does not suspect the behavior and the child does not report it. 

Most child sexual abuse occurs in the residence of the victim or perpetrator (84% for children ages 12 to 17). In most cases, through grooming, children develop a sense of trust in the perpetrator that lead them into their home. It can be difficult to identify grooming behaviors because they are often disguised as caring, loving actions that can seem normal in a different context, but this blog will help you identify the signs of grooming. 

Stages of Child Grooming

Grooming is a manipulative technique that gradually lowers the child’s defenses over time, so it’s important to recognize its different stages: 

  1. Targeting the child: The adult finds and becomes fixated on the child. Grooming begins when the offender grants the child special privileges, like rides to sports practice.
  2. Earning the child’s trust: The adult next begins to gather information about the child’s needs and desires, whether social, emotional, or financial. The adult tries to fulfill them to establish trust and a relationship built on favors. 
  3. Isolating the child: Once the child begins to trust the offender, they will try to create scenarios that provide one-on-one time to foster emotional bonds. This could include personal coaching, a trip, or an outing. 
  4. Sexualizing the relationship: Like the grooming itself, the offender will sexualize the relationship gradually. They may begin with subtle actions, like talking about explicit topics or sharing inappropriate or pornographic images. These may progress to physical actions, like swimming with the child or wrestling, before engaging in an explicit sexual assault. 
  5. Maintaining control: Once the abuse is initiated, the offender will try to sustain the abuse and its secret by emotionally manipulating the child. That manipulation might include threats of hurting the child or their parents or abandoning the support they’ve built the relationship on. Other abusers use their power to manipulate the child to believe that the actions aren’t wrong or won’t be believed. 

Common Grooming Behaviors

While these stages of grooming are commonplace, there are other indications of abuse parents should be able to recognize, including: 

  • Gift giving
  • Touching, hugging, and inappropriate physical contact
  • Offering assistance, whether social, emotional, or financial
  • Seeking online access to a child 
  • Adults seeking a friendship with a child, rather than a more adult role, especially if he or she has other relationships that don’t seem age-appropriate 
  • Adults with an inappropriate interest in a child’s sexual development 
  • Pushing beyond the boundaries of a child’s comfort level with inappropriate jokes or games
  • Intimidation
  • Sharing sexually explicit material, like pictures or videos
  • Communicating with a child secretly and without parental knowledge 

Protecting Your Child from Grooming

After reviewing these signs of child grooming, you may recognize these behaviors in some of the people in your life, but don’t automatically assume they are grooming your child. As we mentioned above, many of these behaviors may truly be supportive or loving gestures. Instead of using these signs as an indicator of guilt, use them to validate your intuition if you feel like something is wrong and to remain alert when new adults enter your child’s life. 

If, however, you do identify these behaviors in a person who you feel might be crossing a line, you should take action. Rather than accuse them of anything inappropriate, you should “confront them with kindness.” This approach is simple: Communicate to the person the boundaries you have around your child and why (including the specific behavior they exhibited that was out of line). Then ask them to respect and support those boundaries. 

If this person is innocent, they will apologize and respect your wishes for your child moving forward. On the other hand, if they are guilty of grooming your child, their behavior will likely stop. Once their behavior is recognized, perpetrators will stop grooming the child in order to protect themselves. 

Whether a friend or family member exhibits all of these behaviors or just one, the most important thing is to trust your instincts and stay informed. Learn how to recognize these signs of grooming and maintain a close relationship with your child so that you’ll notice if their behavior changes. If you understand these behaviors, you can step in to protect your child if something goes wrong.

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