Child grooming is the process predators use to abuse children online and offline. It encompasses the manipulative behaviors offenders employ to gain access to potential victims online and offline. And coerce them into accepting abuse and reduce the risk of getting caught.
The process is typically lengthy as most predators prefer to take time. They work slowly and methodically to keep actions hidden. These manipulators take steps to build trusting relationships with children. They will appear kind and helpful to hide ulterior motives. Unfortunately, that makes it near-impossible for the child or parents to detect danger.
Successfully groomed children can experience sexual exploitation, abuse, or trafficking. There were 252,000 URLs containing videos and images of sexually abused children in 2021. It’s an increase of 64.71 percent compared to the previous year (153,000). Those findings are from the IWF (Internet World Foundation).
Types of Child Grooming Relationships and Tactics
The usual targets for grooming are children and young people. Child grooming can occur in person or online and by strangers or people the victim knows. For example, it could be a family member, friend, religious leader, teacher, etc.
Child grooming typically begins with friendly communication from the predator. The attack then starts when the child responds. Usually, the predator has researched the target, and the attack can take several weeks or months. However, some predators will begin the attack immediately depending on their leverage on the child.
The relationship can also take several forms, including:
- Romantic relationship
- Child mentor
- Authority figure
- Dominant and persistent figure
Groomers usually invade the same online spaces and apps young people use, such as:
- Social media channels
- Text messaging apps (e.g., WhatsApp or Viber)
- Online forums
- Gaming platforms
A groomer may use tactics, such as:
- Providing special attention to gather information about the child
- Pretend to be a younger person
- Showing understanding or giving advice
- Purchasing gifts
- Overindulging the child
The Stages of Child Grooming
Abuse doesn’t just happen, and child grooming is a deliberate action by the perpetrator. Recognizing the stages can help you prevent abuse beforehand.
The six common stages of child grooming are:
- Targeting the child
- Gaining trust
- Filling a need
- Isolation of the child
- Sexualization of interaction
- Maintenance of control
Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
1. Targeting the Child
Predators start by sizing up the child’s vulnerabilities. For example, checking self-esteem level, emotional neediness, and how isolated the child feels. Typically, offenders size children through online platforms with direct messaging capabilities.
For instance, the offender may browse and analyze public Instagram photos and comments. The goal is to see if the victim is a great fit. Child predators may consider questions, such as: is the child already posting questionable content? How active is the child online? Are there signs that parents maintain a watchful eye?
These people prefer children with less parental oversight because initiating acts is easier. That’s why many parents use parental control like MMGuardian to monitor children.
2. Gaining the Child’s Trust
Next, the predator works to gain the child’s trust. Usually, through observation and information gathering to discover needs and fulfill each one. The culprit will typically pretend to be someone of the same age group. They may use fake profile pictures, pretend to share similar interests, offer gifts, and compliment the child.
The culprit may also work on gaining the trust of caregivers, parents, or anyone close to the child. Many know sexual abuse is more hidden when good people unknowingly participate.
3. Filling A Need
Now that the child’s vulnerabilities are known, the offender will exploit each one. For example, they can provide extra attention and affection if lacking in those areas.
As a result of fulfilling the child’s needs, they become dependent on the abuser. The child then allows the predator to occupy more important roles in their life. Offenders will also break the rules set by parents to create secrets with the child. These can be used as threats later.
4. Isolating the Child
Isolation occurs when the groomer uses the developing relationship to create alone time. In addition, parents and other caregivers often unknowingly encourage the new relationship. That is especially true when the child appears happy.
For example, the online predator may loosen the caregiver’s guard over time. This is usually through acts of kindness that make the child share favorable things. Children may also feel a sense of love or appreciation that isn’t attainable elsewhere. For instance, the child might say something like, “Mr. K is the only one that understands me.”
5. Sexualizing the Interaction
The online groomer will begin to push boundaries soon after establishing a dependency. They will steer conversations towards sexual experiences slowly. It may start with discussing likes and dislikes regarding boys or girls. Eventually, things progress to asking the child to perform seemingly “no big deal” sexual acts. For example, sending sexualized pictures and videos.
Victims rarely notice the progressing sexualized behaviors until it becomes uncomfortable. That’s because desensitization occurs slowly during the entire process of child grooming. The child groomer will break boundaries. They may set up an in-person meeting to further increase control of the target.
Even if the child becomes suspicious, predators portray the acts as innocent behaviors.
6. Maintaining Control
After abuse occurs, predators rely on the child’s affection to maintain control. The offender may use blame, secrecy, threats, and even violence. However, that depends on how the child reacts to the sexual abuse. The ultimate goal is to ensure the child’s silence and continued participation.
For example, they may threaten to take away gifts or release unfavorable pictures. Those are tactics for maintaining control. Typically, the consequences offenders threaten children with center around loss, exposure, and humiliation.
Signs Of Child Grooming
The signs of predator grooming aren’t obvious, so it’s pretty challenging to know if it’s occurring. Children may behave in ways that seem normal, but they are often masking the problem. Here are things to look for in your children.
In the case of young kids, if your child:
- Has gifts you didn’t buy (e.g., new toys, clothes, etc.) and doesn’t want to discuss the origin
- Is receiving lots of messages from someone online
- Talks about an older child or particular adult a lot, wanting to spend time with that person
- Prefers to be alone when meeting a specific someone
- Doesn’t want to discuss activities done with a particular individual
- Suddenly stops telling you about things, such as how the day went
- No longer seeks your advice
- Is spending more time alone in the bedroom
With teenagers, if your child:
- Has a much older girlfriend or boyfriend
- Has unexplained gifts like jewelry or electronics and refuses to discuss the origin
- Doesn’t want to talk about their day with a particular person or lies about it
- Is skipping school or other activities
- Spends less time with friends or changes friendship groups quickly
- Is getting many messages from a specific person online
- Wants to be alone when with a particular girlfriend or boyfriend you’ve never met
- Suddenly avoids conversations about thoughts and feelings
Knowing some child grooming patterns can help strengthen your intuition as a parent. Predators exhibit certain behaviors, such as:
- They are suddenly very interested in forming a relationship with the child
- Testing the boundaries of the child’s comfort level, such as making sexualized jokes
- Seemingly innocent sexualized touching, such as accidentally grazing certain parts of the body
- Testing intimidation tactics, such as blaming the child for things
- Sharing sexual material in the presence of the child, such as using certain terms freely
- Finding ways to communicate secretly, such as texting the child
What To Do If You Suspect Grooming from Your Child’s Behavior
You may suspect child grooming but have doubts. After all, child predators are hard to spot, but you can look for predator signs. For example, a person that spends more time interacting with children online could be suspect.
Here are some things to do if you suspect child grooming.
- Watch out for the signs of child grooming
- If you suspect someone, stop that person from being alone with your child
- Don’t let the suspect do favors for your family to mitigate the potential problem
- Ask other families what their relationship is like with the suspected person
- Discover how your child feels about the person by having conversations. Ask probing questions, such as “how do you feel about Ms. A?” or “I see Mr. B loves many of your Facebook posts. Does he follow you on other social networks?”
- Develop the habit of asking your children questions that encourage conversation. For example, “are you alright” or “is something the matter?”
- Sometimes, it’s best to report child grooming to the police or local child protection service even if you doubt it. Law enforcement and groups mandated to tackle child abuse are trained professionals. As such, they can uncover details you may have missed.
The Effects of Child Grooming
Child grooming is a traumatic experience that can leave short and long-term effects. The impact can last a lifetime regardless of where it occurred online or in person.
Common effects of sexual grooming include:
- Eating disorders
- Sleep problems
- Problems with sexuality as grown-ups
- Unable to cope with stress
- Post-traumatic stress
- Suicidal thoughts
- Unwanted pregnancy
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Constant feelings of shame and guilt
- Relationship problems with friends and family, including partners later in life
Monitor Your Child & Report Grooming Early
Grooming is highly harmful to children. It’s a traumatic experience that damages the healthy development of the child. Child grooming can also cause other problems in life. Victims may experience difficulty sleeping, anxiousness, and concentration struggles, among others.
The best thing parents can do is monitor children, but many miss subtle behavior changes until it’s too late. That’s where parental control can help. MMGuardian is an AI-driven parental control application for Android and iOS.
It lets you monitor your child’s smartphone activities and automatically sends you alerts. Specifically, you’ll receive alerts whenever early stage (still online) child grooming messages are detected. This applies to messages to and from predators.
MMGuardian also enables parents to report suspected predators to the NCMEC CyberTipLine. While NCMEC is USA-focused, the organization liaises with law enforcement in other countries. You can also contact the authority or child protection in your region to report concerns. Parents in the UK can report suspected child grooming to the CEOP. Those in Australia can reach out to the AFP-led ACCCE. You can find reporting information for other countries at the ICMEC.