Grooming behavior is a series of calculated steps or moves made by sexual offenders to initiate sexually abusive relationships with their victims. It’s a process that can happen within a short time span or over an extended period of time. During the grooming process, the predator works at winning not just the child’s trust but that of his parents or guardians and other members of his community. One would think that something so vile would be easy to detect but it often isn’t. This is because predators are careful to make the grooming process appear innocent and helpful. But as well-intentioned as it might appear, grooming is a predatory behavior that sexual offenders use to achieve their goal of sexual contact with children. Thankfully, with some education, you can know how to identify grooming behavior and protect your kids from abuse.

Before we discuss these steps or behaviors further, it’s important to note that grooming and sexual abuse can happen over the internet as well as offline or in-person. Grooming and abuse that happen online is just as damaging as any that happens offline. Online grooming is often for the purpose of obtaining sexually explicit photos and videos of children. But predators can also groom children for later in-person contact.The ability to spot grooming behavior is necessary to proactively keep your children safe from abuse. How do you identify online grooming? We’ll be showing you how in this article.

Related: How to monitor what your child watches online

What are the Signs of Grooming?

A lot of study has been done on the child grooming process. The purpose of these studies is to help us know how to identify grooming as a proactive way of ending abuse. It’s also important for finding ways to help treat the underlying problems that lead to child abuse. Certain steps or behaviors that child predators are mostly likely to employ in the grooming process have been identified. These behaviors include:

Victim selection in grooming

Child predators are very deliberate in the selection of their victims. They may consider factors like physical attractiveness, perceived vulnerabilities or ease of access when targeting a child. Researchers studying child sexual abuse found that 42% of abusers were attracted by a child prettiness. However, 27% and 18% of abusers fingered the child’s dressing and small size as their reason for selecting them. These are figure from abusers who selected their victims because they found them physically attractive.

Another thing child molesters consider is how easy it’ll be to access the child. For determining this, they target children from families with single parents and families with marital crisis. Children from families with substance abuse problems or addictions as well those with inattentive parents are also targeted. Children from families in any of these circumstances are less likely to have much adult supervision. And they’re most likely to be left in the care of other people more often than children from families without such problems. This is what the predator is counting on.

grooming child with perceived vulnerabilities

Psychological vulnerabilities are also some of the things predators look out for in their potential victims. A child with a poor self-image, low self-esteem, is more likely to be target by child sexual offenders than those with a positive self-image. Naive and trusting children are also at a higher chance of being targeted than children with a healthy dose of suspicion.

Victim selection online

It basically follows the same process. Profiles, status updates and posts can provide information that a predator needs to zero in on a potential victim. And children going through difficult times socially or emotionally can easily be manipulated into giving out more information about themselves online.

Establishing relationships and gaining trust

Once the child molester has determined a target, they start looking for ways to gain access into the child’s life. Most of the time, this isn’t difficult to do as about 90% of child molesters are people the children already know. As for the other cases where the offender doesn’t have an existing relationship with the child, he or she tries to create one. In such cases, they may befriend the parent or the child and work hard at presenting themselves as trustworthy individuals. So when you notice someone paying special attention to a particular child out of a number of other children in your care, be ready to investigate it.

It’s important that you understand that children can be sexually abused by family members. According to one fact sheet, the younger a child, the higher the probability that their offender is a member of the family or someone trusted by the family. In such cases of intrafamilial sexual abuse, a relationship already exists between the molesters and the victims. And they will take advantage of it. The predators only have to work at creating a special relationship between the child and themselves.

When an abuser isn’t from the child’s family, he or she may be from their school, church or youth group. They can even be well-respected owners of social or commercial establishments, acting as mentors to young people. In single parent families, abusers may win the affection of the parent and take up the role of father or maternal figures in the child’s life. Other ways a child molester use to gain trust include offering to babysit, give gifts, rides or help the family out in one way or another.

Gaining trust online

After establishing initial contact with the child online, a predator may proceed to gaining their trust. They can do this by paying compliments, agreeing with and flattering the child. They can also manipulate the child into a romantic relationship. Child predators are knowledgeable in the topics and trends that interest children. They use this knowledge to build connections and create a relationship with the child.

Whether they’re online or physical contacts, predators build these relationships with the aim of isolating the child emotionally and physically from their support system. Children that know how to identify grooming have better odds are spotting such a move. You can also use parental controls to keep tabs on your child’s online activity.

Testing boundaries and introducing sexual contact

After establishing a relationship with and gaining trust, the predator moves to lower the child’s inhibitions. They can do this by gradually desensitizing the child to touch, making sexualized comments or jokes. While they do this, they watch for the child’s reactions and gauge their comfort levels. They may also want to test if the child is likely to keep secrets. For instance, a predator may gift a child a smartphone or underwear and ask them to keep it secret from their parents or guardians. The predator will use the child’s response to determine if they can go on with their plans.

To desensitize the child to their touch, a predator may begin with innocent non-sexual touch (like high-five, pats and hugs) and gradually progress to tickling, bathing, rubbing, massaging and “accidental” bumping or grazing of private parts. Molester can introduce sexualized games that’ll involve exposure or touching of body parts. They may even hug or rub your kids in your presence to make it seem like it’s okay. However, if you know how to identify grooming, you’ll be alert to such subtle moves.

There are times when the desensitization process is more psychological than physical. In these scenarios, the predator may invade their privacy by sneaking into the child’s bedroom or restroom. They may also bring up conversations with sexual content and introduce pornography. The aim of all these is to exploit the child’s natural curiosity about sex and prepare them for eventual sexual abuse. A child that has had open and relaxed conversations with their parents or caregivers about sex and the chances of abuse are less likely to become victims of predators. This is because they’re more aware of the dangers and more likely to tell their parents if they encounter any.

Introducing sexual contact online

Online predators may ask the child to touch themselves in a sexual manner or share pornographic material with them. They may request for nude photos or sexually explicit videos of the child. But before all these, the predator may have lowered inhibitions by introducing discussions with sexual content. Educating your child on how to identify grooming can protect them from becoming victims.

Grooming behaviour after abuse

After molesting a child, abusers keep their victims in check with threats of violence, blackmail or loss of the relationship. Remember that by this time, they may have succeeded at making the child dependent on them. Knowing how to identify grooming, however, can help you keep abuse and its resulting problems from occurring. Honest help or interest in your child from an adult or older child can easily be mistaken for grooming. Keep things in perspective by considering how far the person is willing to go to have alone time with your child. Compare the attention shown to you and other kids with that shown to your child. Pay attention to how much your child talks about this person and how she/he talks about them.