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Another, often overlooked but no less important group of warning signs are those behaviors manifested by the perpetrators of child abuse – particularly child sexual abuse. Once an offender selects a potential victim, he or she will prepare for the abuse through a process called grooming. Grooming is a method by which sexual offenders engage children and their caretakers so that the abuse can occur with minimal risk of detection. Although it is impossible to describe a “typical” child abuser, there are common patterns of grooming behavior that offenders use to prepare their victims, as well as the victims’ families and communities. Knowledge of these behaviors is an important aspect of prevention since they typically occur over time and precede the actual act of abuse.
Grooming behaviors target bullets 3 and 4. The process can take from a few days to as much as a year (one recent study has placed the average at 1.5 years 2 ), but offenders have been shown to be patient in their efforts to gain the trust of everyone involved and avoid being caught. The grooming process has three basic elements that are separate but interrelated. These include the physical and psychological grooming of the child or youth (and family), and grooming of the community.
Physical grooming involves desensitization to touch. Starting with innocent pats on the back or arm, an acceptable form of touching a younger person, the offender progresses the touch to hugging, tickling, and wrestling. Over time, this conditions the child/youth to increase levels of physical contact. The potential victim feels that nothing is wrong because he or she basically interprets the touch like one given from a loving parent. If the offender senses that the child/youth is becoming uncomfortable, they will back off and try again later. The offender uses these skills to make the child/youth increasingly receptive to their touch – eventually progressing to sexual contact.
Psychological grooming is used with both the child and the family. Offenders spend time with their victims; they show children attention and use any possible method of communication that allows the child to feel they are on the offender’s level and that the offender understands them. Offenders try to become “friends” to their victims – friends with power and thus, control – and use their power and control over the victims as a way of eliciting cooperation. Special gifts, treats, breaking of rules, foods they might not be allowed to eat at home, trips, and attention allow for a deep connection to be forged between the molester and the child. If the child shows signs of pulling away, the offender shows signs of feeling rejected and unhappy, and the child feels guilt and confusion. Offenders sometimes even resort to physical threats to the family, pets, or friends if the child wants to discontinue this “special relationship.” At the same time, offenders groom the parents or other caretakers who may feel happy that another adult is showing their child attention, and allow increasing levels of independent access – both inside and outside of the home. The result of these tactics is for the offender to ultimately isolate and confuse the child into feeling responsible for, or complicit in the abuse (one of the primary reasons children do not report).
Community grooming is the way in which offenders create a controlled environment around themselves. Offenders are skilled in projecting an image to others (employers, parishes, community organizations, YSOs, etc.), that they are responsible and caring citizens. As a result, they are placed in positions of trust, are allowed unmonitored or unsupervised access to children and youth, and are thereby given greater access to their eventual victims. If a suspicion or allegation comes forward, it is easily explained away by adults in the organization who have been groomed by the offender to think that they would never harm a child. In this way, the community unwittingly enables the offender and confirms what the offender has told the child/youth as part of the grooming process – that if they tell, they will not be believed.
But knowledge is power. As with the physical and behavioral symptoms of child abuse and neglect described above, these grooming activities and their associated behaviors can also serve as warning signs which, if noticed, can be used to prevent the abuse from occurring or to discover the abuse at the earliest possible time.
Knowledge about the scope of the problem, the definitions of the various types of child maltreatment, the symptoms that children and youth exhibit when they are abused, and the predictive behaviors of those who would harm them can all serve to help build prevention strategies that YSOs can use to protect the children and youth in their care. Make no mistake – perpetrators of child sexual abuse are active decision-makers, and they continuously evaluate the likelihood of successfully committing this crime while balancing the odds against the possibility of being caught. The prevention strategies contained in this report are designed to help YSOs of all sizes alter these calculations by sending a public message to would-be offenders that the likelihood of successfully abusing a child has decreased, while the risks of their behaviors being noticed and reported have increased.
1 Finkelhor, David. (1984). Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research. New York: The Free Press, 1984.
2 Leclerc B. & Cale, J. (2015). Adult sex offenders in youth-oriented institutions: Evidence on sexual victimization experiences of offenders and their offending patterns. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. 497.
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