Predators and Grooming - Installment 1

Grooming is the process sexual predators use to manipulate victims, adults and environments to make it easier to commit their abuse. This three-part series will examine the elements of grooming, share red flags of grooming behavior, and offer strategies for protecting children.

What is grooming?

Research has shown that people often have a tough time identifying grooming behaviors. Many of these behaviors can seem just like those of decent adults who have the best interests of children and teens at heart. The difference is the underlying motivation. While there is no one-size-fits-all description of the grooming process, there are common elements that are part of the grooming process.

Here are key elements:

The early stage of grooming typically consists of gaining access to victims and building trust with those around them. At first, it can seem quite normal and innocent. Grooming can happen in plain sight, and predators are masterful at it. More often than not, parents and victims don't even realize they are being groomed.

It has been said that child predators have radar when it comes to selecting their victims. There are certain characteristics predators seek. At the top of the list is low self-esteem. Predators Predators gravitate to children who don't feel good about themselves, who constantly seek attention and affirmation from adults, or who need someone to fill them up emotionally.

Child predators also often target children whose home lives are unstable or who come from single-parent households. These children, and their families, tend to be vulnerable and easier to manipulate. The predator may view an unstable home life as an opportunity to insert themselves into a child's life as a stable, positive influence.

In addition to taking advantage of existing situations, predators may also strategically create opportunities for themselves. Often, the predator is someone the victim has regular contact with (a relative, neighbor, family friend). Predators may also seek professional or volunteer positions — for example, as coaches, teachers, youth mentors, etc. — that put them in regular contact with potential victims.

Gaining trust is perhaps the most important aspect of grooming. Trust leads everyone involved to let down their defenses, making the eventual abuse and concealment easier. Predators cultivate victims' trust in a variety of ways. For example, it's common for predators to befriend their victims, making them feel important and special and positioning themselves as the person the victim can turn to as a confidante. Predators often make victims feel that theirs is a loving or exclusive relationship.

The predator often showers the victim with flattery, gifts and attention, which can be a big deal for a vulnerable child or teen struggling with loneliness or low self-esteem.

Securing the trust of the victim's adult support network is also important. Predators are typically kind, charming and helpful. For example, they might provide the babysitting desperately needed by the single parent, be the coach who goes the extra mile, lend a hand around the house, or act as a father figure.

Isolating victims is a central part of the grooming process. From a physical standpoint, predators create opportunities to be alone with their victims to enable them to build the "special" bonds needed to foster trust and to create the illusion that the relationship is a special, exclusive one.

Victims may also experience emotional isolation as the predator manipulates them into thinking that no one understands them as well as the predator does. Predators have also been known to strategically sabotage relationships with caregivers as a way to discredit the victim later. For example, a predator might report a child's "misdeeds" to undermine confidence in the child. He might also self-report an incident of inappropriate touching to a caregiver, calling it an "accident" and expressing concern that the incident could be misunderstood. Then, when the victim does try to disclose, it's already old news and the story is effectively discounted.

Desensitizing the victim to physical touch is another grooming tactic. The early stages can simply involve hugs and pats on the back, normal touches that children experience with many adults. As the desensitization progresses, the touching becomes more intimate and inappropriate. It might initially be portrayed as accidental — occurring, say, while drying a victim off after a swim — but it advances to more invasive touching. Specific tactics vary, but the end goal is the same: to make the eventual transition to sexual abuse a "natural" progression.

Psychological desensitization can be equally important in the grooming process. Predators deliberately confuse victims' sense of what is and isn't appropriate. They also use tactics to make victims feel complicit in or responsible for the abuse so they'll be less likely to resist or tell anyone what's happening.

Psychological grooming tactics vary widely. Some examples include watching a child undress while sitting "innocently" on the bed, using sex as a game, sharing pornography, swimming nude, or getting victims to talk about sex or play strip poker. They can also include getting victims to break rules by, say, using alcohol or drugs, or to engage in activities that push limits, such as posing for nude photographs.

Most victims do not disclose abuse. Some of the reasons for this include a perceived end of the relationship the victim believes they have with the predator, a fear of what telling will do (predators manipulate victims into thinking that they'll both get in trouble, that the family will break up, that their parents will hate them, that they'll be taken from their home, etc.), and a fear of not being believed because of the predator's relationship with caregivers (this is especially true when the predator is a relative or close family friend).

Additionally, if the predator has succeeded in isolating the victim, undermining the victim's credibility, or making the victim feel somehow complicit or responsible, all of that can contribute to their reluctance to come forward. Add to that feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-blame and fear of stigmatization (especially for boys) and the incentive to stay silent is easy to understand.

Explicit threats are also part of the equation for many victims. A predator might threaten physical harm — perhaps to the victim or the victim's loved ones — to ensure a victim's silence. Or the threats might be aimed at emotionally intimidating victims. For example, a predator might convince a victim that they will be placed in foster care or be rejected by loved ones if the abuse comes to light.

So what can we do? Let's face it. This is scary stuff. Professionals who deal with child sexual predators say it's striking how skillful they can be at manipulating people and situations so that they can carry out and get away with the abuse. This story is a perfect example

So how do we, as concerned parents and adults, protect the children we care about? Or just as importantly, how do we keep from suspecting everyone who shows them love and affection? Installment 2 in this series will address behavioral red flags, and Installment 3 will provide action steps for parents and caregivers.

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