Grooming is a strategy used by predators and abusive people to build trust and emotional connection with someone they are attempting to victimize. It’s an insidious style of manipulation used on children, young people, and even vulnerable adults, to foster the groundwork for exploitative, abusive or toxic relationship dynamics.
What Does Grooming Mean?
Grooming is a gradual process of manipulation in which an abusive person goes to whatever lengths necessary to gain trust, create emotional connection, or create a sense of dependency in order to abuse or exploit another person. It is a common tactic used in cases of child sexual exploitation to make the victim more susceptible to trusting the abuser.
Usually, the grooming process starts with innocuous behavior, and gradually the victim is tested and indoctrinated into the abusive context, as the perpetrator slowly pushes the boundaries and offers reassurance of the behavior’s purpose and utility. Unfortunately, when it’s successful, many victims of sexualized grooming can be sexually abused, exploited, or even forced into sex trafficking.
Groomers are not always easy to spot; they are often not scary men luring children into a dark alley. Groomers can be men or women and they are professional manipulators that can trick even the most cautious person. They can be any age, race, maintain a seemingly normal life, and otherwise blend in with society. They are often able to get as close as they do to children and teens by building the same trust and emotional connectionwith the child’s caregivers, posing as another person who simply cares for the child.
As they connect with the victim and build trust with the child’s caregivers, their underlying agenda is always in motion. They will begin to test their limits, cementing themselves into the child’s life, further cultivating the trust, bond, and authority they need to fulfill their true intentions. Alternatively, they can position themselves as the only adult who cares, if a child or teen’s parents are not readily available, exploiting the child’s need for attunement and attention and furthering a wedge between a child and their parents.
How to Spot the Signs
One of the most profound complexities of grooming is the devious nature of the tactic because the victim often has no idea that they are being manipulated. A young person typically has a natural naiveté towards life and generally trusts the adults in their inner circles. A person who is attempting to sexually groom a child is often meticulously sneaky with their actions to avoid suspicion and detection from the other adults in the child’s life and support networks. That said, there are some signs family or friends can look for when they are suspicious of sexual grooming.
One sign of grooming is an overarching enthusiasm and eagerness to gain the trust of a child’s caregivers, in an effort to attain more access to the child. Once the groomer has portrayed themselves as a person the parents can trust, the parent(s) may start to let their guard down and allow the groomer to spend more time with their child. This can look like letting the unsuspected groomer drop the child off at school, take them to the park to play, or just spending time with the child in the family’s own home, with limited or no supervision. During this time the groomer is getting to know the child and making note of any unmet needs or vulnerabilities they can exploit.
Another sign of grooming can be excessive gift giving or providing for the victim in a way that makes the victim happy. For example, if a child is only allowed a certain amount of sweets, a groomer might sneak them candy or money, which increases the affection the child has for the groomer. A groomer may also attempt to isolate the child, either physically or emotionally, from other adults in their life. This can look like explaining to the child that they love them more than their own parents or physically isolating the child by spending more time with the them so that they have less time with their friends and family. This is an especially effective strategy if there is domestic violence or other abuse or neglect in the home.
This kind of grooming can also happen in adolescent or adult intimate relationships. For example, a boyfriend or girlfriend can employ these same tactics in order to groom a victim into performing sexual activities. If one of the parties is disinterested in sex and the other wants sex, then they can use grooming tactics to build a false sense of emotional connection and trust in order to get what they want sexually.
Online Grooming + Social Media
Although strides have been made to better protect children on the internet, it remains an unfortunate breeding ground for potential grooming, child sexual abuse, and exploitation. As previously noted, it is often very difficult for children to notice when adults are displaying suspicious behavior towards them. This is elevated even more on the internet where there is more anonymity and privacy, and where parents are often not present to oversee the extent of their child’s internet and social media usage.
Online grooming can take place over a long duration of time or even after a few conversations. The initial behavior may seem innocent, as if the groomer is genuinely interested in the child’s life. The groomer continues to build rapport with the child as they are deceptively attempting to gain the child’s trust. They may lie about their age, location, what they look like, and mostly what their true intentions are with the child.
It is common for the groomer to sneakily slip in the conversation that they have something the child desires. This can be emotional support, a non-judgmental ear to listen, connection to a famous person, money, freedom, or whatever need the child has that the perpetrator has been able to hone in on, in effort to bring the child closer to them.
In many cases, children who meet groomers on the internet or social media genuinely grow to trust and sometimes even love the person on the other end of their computer or phone. At this point, many have developed an unconditional affection for the groomer and breaking the spell the groomer has casted can be extremely difficult.
Grooming is a crazymaking tactic and a victim feels oftentimes that they have a very real connection with their abuser, which makes it all the more difficult to break the bond. Commonly a child or young person feels as if they are uniquely special as the groomer has strategically conditioned the groomed to feel that way.
While children are indeed special, the role of grooming aims to use that flattery, ingratiation, and false empowerment to lure the child into abuse and exploitation. Through more education of the prevalence of grooming and awareness of the signs and red flags, parents and society can work towards putting a stop to this tactic of predatory behavior and better protect vulnerable children.