A Guide for Parents: How to Spot Signs of Grooming in a Child

The safety of our children is of the utmost importance, and it’s important to be able to spot signs of grooming by a potential perpetrator in our children, or in those that we have stewardship over. Whether you are concerned about the current safety of your children, or you just want to be prepared, this guide should give you the tools you need to stay alert and keep your children safe. 

What is Grooming - A Brief Overview

Grooming is the process through which a perpetrator builds a relationship, often with a child, with the intention of exploiting them emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. The grooming process involves gaining the trust and confidence of the targeted individual (and usually their parents or guardians as well), creating an emotional connection, and then manipulating or exploiting those relationships for the perpetrator’s benefit. This process can take place over multiple years as perpetrators are often careful not to get caught. It is important to be alert and cautious for your children.

Groomers use various tactics to build trust. These tactics could include giving gifts, attention, and compliments. They may gradually introduce inappropriate behaviors, making it difficult for the victim to recognize . Grooming can occur both in physical environments and online spaces, and it is a serious concern for the safety and well-being of children. Recognizing the signs of grooming is crucial for parents and caregivers to protect their children from potential harm.

Groomers are typically individuals that are known to the child and can include teachers, coaches, older children, the romantic partner of a parent, relatives, day care givers, etc. These perpetrators often establish a good relationship with the parents guardians of a child and use that relationship to establish and retain access to their victim.

Potential Signs of Grooming - Red Flags to be Alert To

Here is a list of some activities and behaviors that could indicate that a child is being groomed. While just one of two of these behaviors may not necessarily indicate that anything is wrong, a number of these behaviors should not be ignored. Most importantly, as a parent, always pay attention to your instincts and what you feel. If something feels wrong or off, do not ignore that feeling. 

Potential Signs in the Perpetrator:

These potential signs are not presented in any particular order. If any of the below signs show up, be wary and don’t be afraid to stand up for your child. It is better to accidentally offend someone than to leave your child open to attack. 

1. Showing Desire or Creating Opportunities to be Alone With a Child.  

The individual shows a consistent desire to be alone with a child, or creates opportunities to be alone with a child, especially in areas that are not easily monitored. For example, offering to drive the child to activities, babysit them, take them on outings, have private mentoring or coaching sessions with them, etc. Any time another individual is consistently trying to be alone with your child should raise concerns. This could indicate that the offender is trying to establish a private connection with your child and possibly have harmful interactions. 


2. Showing Excessive Interest in a Child

A perpetrator might begin to show an abnormal amount of interest in the child given their relationship with them. This might include asking about the child’s grades, their social activities, their interests and hobbies, problems they encounter in life, etc. As this progresses the individual may be more invasive of the child’s privacy.  For example, they might talk about the child’s developing body, look in their room, “accidentally” walk in on the child when they are in the bathroom, talk or ask about the child’s sexual development etc. These later behaviors are especially alarming. 


3. Abnormal Gift Giving

Giving gifts or buying things for a child (or other members of the family) are often ways that a perpetrator gains the trust of a child and their parents. Be wary of someone who is providing gifts to your children or your family (including yourself) that are not normal for their relationship to you, or are being done without your approval or permission. In some instances, like with teens, a perpetrator may give gifts of tobacco, drugs, or alcohol. This would immediately be a problem to address, if not for any other reason than to keep your child safe from dangerous substances. 


4. Creating or Keeping “Secrets” With a Child

A common tactic to gain control over a child and try to limit the chance that a child will express concerns to a parent is to begin to teach the child to keep “secrets” This might begin by giving small gifts (candy bars, ice cream), and expressing that it should be “their little secret” so that the parent isn’t displeased. This will create a system of keeping secrets of the perpetrators interactions with a child, and the perpetrator might build on this over time – possibly coercing the child keep sexual abuse hidden later on. 


Note: It is important to distinguish between secrets and surprises with your children. Secrets are not to be kept from parents, no matter what. Surprises, like birthday presents, are something that is only kept hidden for a short period of time, and it’s a happy thing when everyone else finds out. 


5. Progressive use of Physical Touching

Perpetrators might begin to establish a physical connection with a child by patting them, putting their arm around them, rubbing their hair, hugging them, giving them high fives, etc.  This might happen in front of you (as your lack of protesting might signal to the child that this is okay) or in front of other adults at times. As the child begins to get used to physical touches by this individual they might progress the touches to be more extensive or more sexual in nature (sitting on lap,tickling, wrestling, kissing, patting a child on the bottom, etc.) 


 6. Discouraging Involvement of Other Adults

As perpetrators attempt to establish a relationship with a child and create opportunities that limit oversight they might try to discourage the involvement of other adults with that child. They might be protective of “their time” with the child, they might provide reasons as to why they should keep their interactions exclusive, etc.


7. Communicating With a Child Without Parental Knowledge or Consent

Communication with the child without parental knowledge or consent should be a cause for concern. This might include texts, emails, social media messages, etc. The perpetrator might be following the child or teen on their social media accounts. 


7. Making Sexual Comments or Jokes

Making sexual comments or jokes may be used as a tactic to bring up sexual topics in conversation, create curiosity in a child, or try to desensitize the child to topics around this nature. This paves the way for an offender to make their relationship with the child increasingly sexual. 


8. Exposing Themselves to a Child

Perpetrators might take actions that involve exposing themselves to the child to test boundaries. They might pass this off as “accidental” at first. This behavior should be taken extremely seriously. 


9. Showing Pornography, Encouraging Sexual Experimentation

As the grooming progresses the offender might begin to show the child pornography, or encourage them to think about sexual topics or to experiment sexually. This might include having increasing sexually explicit conversations with them, asking them about or encouraging them masturbation, etc. These actions themselves are classified as sexual abuse and are extremely serious. 


10. Minimizing Concerns Over Their Actions

The perpetrator may try to ingratiate themselves with the parents or guardians of their target child in order to deflect suspicion or to create opportunities to get close to the child. If concerns are raised about their behavior they might try to minimize concerns or make rationalizations about their actions with a child. They might try to manipulate the parents or guardians of the child to make them feel awkward or uncomfortable discussing their concerns, or they might pressure them to accept their relationship with the child. 

Potential Signs of Grooming in Children

While it is very important to watch the behavior of those that interact with your children, many individuals will be in contact with your children when you are not around. Therefore, it is important to watch your children for signs that indicate they may be being groomed by others, or just that something distressing is going on in their lives. 

Despite remaining alert to these signs, the most important thing you can do to prevent grooming in your children is to maintain a loving relationship with them and make sure that they feel comfortable sharing things with you. It can be good to check up on them frequently and have conversations about how things are going for them in various areas of their lives, both to keep up a good relationship with them and to have opportunities to hear of any concerns they might report. 

Below are some indications that your child might be being groomed, or are experiencing distressing problems in their life: 

  • Frequently being upset, withdrawn, or distressed.
  • Changes in mood including aggressiveness, anger, rebellion, or being over compliant and submissive.
  • Spending more or less time online or on their devices.
  • Desire to avoid spending time with certain people, or to attend certain activities (sports practices, school, playdates, etc.) This could also appear as just a loss of interest in certain people or activities, or as an unusual fear of being alone with certain people or in certain places.
  • Being secretive about where they are spending their time or who they are communicating or spending time with (including online).
  • Sexualized behavior, making sexual jokes or references, asking sexual questions, or showing interest in sexual topics or having an understanding of sex beyond what the child should be expected to show at their age.
  • Change in eating or sleeping habits (having nightmares, loss of appetite, etc.), or regression in behaviors that the child had previously outgrown (thumb sucking, bedwetting, etc. Wetting or soiling themselves that is not associated with toilet training.
  • Having new things (money, toys, clothes, phones, etc.) that they can’t or won’t explain getting.
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Underage drinking, smoking, or drug use.
  • Spending an increasing amount of time with a specific individual or at a specific activity (for example: staying late consistently at sport practices or with an older “friend”).
  • Persistent or recurring pain while going to the bathroom.
  • Unexpected bleeding or bruising, unexplained blood or their bedsheets, underwear, or other clothing.
If you begin to see any of these signs in your children, keep your eyes open for other signals of danger and address your concerns with your child. If you begin to see multiple signs that could be cause for alarm and you should talk with your child about your concerns and reach out to the authorities for direction on how to proceed. 

How to Respond

If a child discloses reports of grooming or sexual abuse to you it’s important to listen carefully to what they’re saying and make sure that they know you care about them. Let them know that they’ve done the right thing by telling you. Tell them that this is not their fault, and that you will take them seriously. 

While others (especially the perpetrator) might claim that the child is acting out for attention, it is extremely rare for children to lie about these instances. In the vast majority of cases the child is telling the truth.

It is important to contact the authorities and proceed according to their instructions. It is not recommended to confront the offender directly as that could elicit a violent or angry response. 

Additional Resources

If you want more knowledge and resources in how to spot signs of grooming or abuse in children and training in how to respond, you can take a free training course, Prevent-It, that has been created by the Little Warriors nonprofit organization. Learn more here.

You can also go here to sign up for our newsletter and receive notice of additional resources and training that we create. 

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