Parents: Learn About the Grooming Process and How It Leads to Child Sexual Abuse

by Adam Horowitz

It is well-understood that most sexual abuse of children is committed by persons who are already known to the child and his parents. This is a sharp contrast to the myth that children should only fear interactions with strangers. But this reality begs the question as how does an offender make the transition from an ordinary trusted adult to having the opportunity and access to sexually abuse a child. The answer, most often, lies in a single word – GROOMING.

Grooming is a subtle, gradual, and escalating process of building trust with a child. It is often deliberate and purposeful. Abusers may groom children for weeks, months, or even years—before any sexual abuse actually takes place. It usually begins with behaviors that may not even seem to be inappropriate.

Although there is no consensus model as how predators approach the grooming process, there are often several distinct stages of grooming that have been identified in case studies. Similarly, there are several pervasive behavioral patterns that are often seen during these stages.

In the civil lawsuits for sexual abuse which we handle, we often see the following stages in grooming

1) Targeting the victim – Predators have a keen eye for who is vulnerable and susceptible to abuse. In cases we have handled, we have seen predators target children with low self-esteem. We have seen victims who came from a family with an absent parent or a broken family. Predators can target children with a prior history of abuse as well as the child of a parent who works long hours. This is not an exclusive list, but it is intended to illustrate the type of victims who are often target. Of course, children who do not come from these backgrounds can also be targeted for other reasons.

2) Gaining the victim’s trust – The sex offender gains trust by watching and gathering information about the child, getting to know his needs and how to fill them. 

3) Filling a need – Once the sex offender begins to fill the child’s needs, that adult may become noticeably more important in the child’s life and may become idealized. Gifts, extra attention, affection may distinguish one adult in particular and should raise concern and greater vigilance to be accountable for that adult.

4) Isolating the child – The grooming sex offender develops a special relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This isolation reinforces a special connection. Babysitting, tutoring, coaching and special trips all enable this isolation. A special relationship can be even more reinforced when an offender cultivates a sense in the child that he is loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even parents, provide. Parents may unwittingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship.

5) Sexualizing the Relationship – At a stage of sufficient emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs through talking about sexuality or puberty or masturbation, or creating situations (like going swimming) in which both offender and victim are naked. At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship.

6) Maintaining control – Once the sex abuse is occurring, offenders commonly use secrecy, guilt and blame to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence—particularly because the sexual activity may cause the child to withdraw from the relationship.

The offender’s activities when grooming children often include:

  • Befriending a child and gaining his or her trust.
  • Testing a child’s boundaries through telling inappropriate jokes, roughhousing, backrubs, tickling, or sexual games.
  • Moving from non-sexual touching to “accidental” sexual touching. This typically happens during horseplay so the child may not even identify it as purposeful, inappropriate touching. It is often done slowly so the child is gradually desensitized to the touch.
  • Separating the child from his or her peers.
  • Manipulating the child to not tell anyone about what is happening. The abuser may use a child’s fear, embarrassment, or guilt about what has happened. Sometimes, the abuser uses bribery, threats, or coercion.
  • Confusing the child into feeling responsible for the abuse. Children may not notice or may become confused as the contact becomes increasingly intimate and sexual.

The offender’s activities when grooming adolescents may include additional strategies, such as:

  • Identifying with the adolescent. The abuser may appear to be the only one who understands him/her.
  • Displaying common interests in sports, online apps, music, movies, video games, television shows, etc.
  • Recognizing and filling the adolescent’s need for affection and attention, which is particular effective if an authority figure is missing in the home.
  • Giving gifts or special privileges to the adolescent.
  • Allowing or encouraging the adolescent to break rules (e.g., smoking, drinking, using drugs, viewing pornography, underage driving).
  • Communicating with the adolescent outside of the person’s role (e.g., teacher, or coach). This could include, for example, texting or emailing the teen without the parents’ knowledge.

It is not just children and adolescents who are groomed. Offenders also work hard to gain the trust of the adults around a child/youth (e.g., parents, other family members, and coworkers). This may include:

  • Befriending the parents or other caregivers.

  • Showering the parents or other caregivers with gifts, including those they may not otherwise be able to afford.

  • Looking for opportunities to have time alone with a child (e.g., offering to babysit, drive the child in his car, or inviting the child for a sleepover).

Adults and other caregivers must be vigilant to watch for signs of grooming and to take a step back and examine whether they too are being groomed by an adult who wants access to their child.  Discuss the grooming process with your child so that they too can recognize the warning signs.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of child sexual abuse, please contact our law firm at 855-700-PATH or send an e-mail to sexual abuse attorney Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Farmer Jaffe Weissing handles sexual abuse cases nationwide.