6 Stages of Child Grooming
Wikipedia defines Child Grooming as befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family, to lower the child’s inhibitions for child sexual abuse. It lures minors into trafficking of children, illicit businesses such as child prostitution, or the production of child pornography.
Child groomers are often drawn into roles such as youth ministry or other positions where they have access to children and youth like teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.
A child groomer is often methodical in their strategy and the grooming process can happen quickly, depending on the response from the child, or over a number of years. It can happen in person, online, or a combination of both. Most offenders are someone the youth and family know and have a measure of trust.
There are 6 common stages of grooming and it is important to be aware of for those of us who work with children and youth.
Stage 1: Initial Contact: If an abuser does not already have access to a child they will often target children that are unaware of sexual abuse, are shy, insecure, or children considered ‘weird’ or ‘needy’. They want: access, trust, and ability to control. Often children with a single parent, or children with busy or inattentive parents are targeted and are increased risk of grooming. The reason for this is that there is a perceived likelihood that the child/youth will desire the attention and affection of an adult because of the deficiency in their primary relationships.
Points of contact include:
- Church/youth group
- Shopping Mall
- Movie theater
- Bus/train stations
- Athletic activities/events
- Anywhere a child/youth might gather with minimal direct supervision
Stage 2: Gaining Trust: The sex offender gains trust by watching and gathering information about the child, getting to know his or her needs and how to fill them. In this regard, sex offenders mix effortlessly with responsible caretakers because they generate warm and calibrated attention. Often, offenders fly under the radar in youth oriented programs because, on the surface, they look like and act like the ideal staff/volunteer.
Stage 3: Befriending the Victim: Once the individual groomer begins to meet the emotional/relational needs of the child, that adult may assume noticeably more importance in the child’s life and may become idealized. Often gifts, extra attention and affection may be a red flag for one adult in particular and they should be monitored closely at this point.
Stage 4: Isolating the Child: The grooming sex offender uses the developing special relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This private, one-on-one time further 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; grateful that their child has someone in their life that understands and cares for them. Parents can be manipulated into thinking this individual is a conduit for the parent to understand their own strained relationship with their child.
Stage 5: Sexualizing the Relationship: Once there is sufficient emotional dependence and trust, the offender progressively sexualizes the relationship. Desensitization occurs through talking, pictures, even creating situations hugging more frequently and for longer periods of time. At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship. When conditioning a child, the grooming sex offender has the opportunity to shape the child’s sexual preferences and can manipulate what a child finds exciting and extend the relationship in this way. The child comes to see himself as a more sexual being and to define the relationship with the offender in more sexual and special terms. For a child who has yet to reach identity achievement, sexualization like this can disrupt and distort that natural process.
Stage 6: Maintaining Control: Once the sex abuse is occurring, offenders commonly use secrecy and blame to keep the child in continued participation and silence—particularly because the sexual activity may cause the child to withdraw from the relationship. Children in these entangled relationships—and at this point they are entangled—confront threats to blame them, to end the relationship and to end the emotional and material needs they associate with the relationship, whether it be the money, the coaching one receives, special outings or other gifts. The groomer creates a system of rewards for the behavior and the loss of those rewards becomes the consequences for ending the relationship. The child may also feel that the loss of the relationship and the consequences of exposing it will humiliate and render them even more unwanted by the offender, family, and friends.
Grooming for sexual exploitation purposes is a complex and effective strategy that we must be vigilant about. If you work with youth in any capacity, you are charged with protecting these precious children. Blaming them for the abuse will only render them more vulnerable to future attacks because it will further marginalize them from protective factors.
In our next post we will explore our response should we suspect grooming/sexual abuse is occurring and how we can work to prevent it in the first place.