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Understanding Grooming

What Is Grooming?

The concept of grooming is fairly well-known — but it isn’t well understood. Grooming is used to describe a wide variety of behaviors that don’t actually fit the commonly accepted definition. Understanding what grooming is — and is not — is critical to protecting children, teens, and vulnerable adults from abuse.

What Is Grooming?

Grooming is a set of manipulative behaviors used by people who abuse. The goal of grooming is to gain access to their victims, coerce their victims into submitting to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. While grooming is commonly understood to be used against children, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk.

Grooming can take place in-person or online. When it happens in-person, it usually is done by a person in the victim’s circle of trust. This may include a coach, teacher, family member, acquaintance, youth group leader, or another person who may have a reason to interact with the victim. When grooming happens online, it could either be someone who knows the victim — or a complete stranger.

This type of manipulation can take many forms, but often follows a pattern:

  1. Selection: an abuser selects a potential victim based on perceived vulnerability or ease of access.

  2. Access and Isolation: an abuser will often seek out positions where they have contact with potential victims, and then will work to physically or emotionally separate a victim from their loved ones.

  3. Development of Trust: an abuser will work to gain the trust of a potential victim using a variety of tactics, such as showering them with attention, sharing secrets, and giving them gifts.

  4. Desensitization: an abuser will start to introduce touch that may seem harmless — such as hugging or tickling — and later escalate to more sexual contact. They may also discuss sexual topics or show the victim explicit images to introduce the idea of sexual contact.

  5. Normalization: an abuser will try to make their behavior seem natural or normal, to avoid raising suspicions.

Grooming often involves gaining the trust of a potential victim’s family or caregivers. A person may buy gifts for the family, do things for the family (like repairs around the house), or offer to babysit a child or take them places. They may also show an unusual interest in a child’s activities and wellbeing. A person who is trying to groom someone may also touch them in non-sexual ways in front of their family — which signals the potential victim that their family is OK with this physical contact and that it is acceptable. In some cases, the person may even flirt with or try to strike up a romantic relationship with a parent or caregiver.

Importantly, people who groom are often charming, kind and helpful. They rarely meet the stereotypical idea of how an abuser looks or acts, and may even be popular and well-liked in the community. This can make it harder for parents and loved ones to recognize that grooming behaviors are happening.

Warning Signs of Grooming

There are a number of signs that may indicate that a person is being groomed. These red flags may vary based on the age of the potential victim.

For young children (under the age of 12), the signs may include:

  • Having unexplained gifts, and refusing to talk about where they got the gifts;

  • Getting lots of messages from someone they only know online;

  • Talking a lot about a particular adult or older child, and wanting to spend a lot of time with them;

  • Wanting to go alone when they meet a certain adult or older person;

  • Not wanting to talk about what they have been doing;

  • Spending more time alone in their room; and

  • Not talking to you about their day or asking for your advice.

For teenagers, warning signs of grooming may include:

  • Being in a relationship with someone who is much older;

  • Having unexplained gifts, and refusing to talk about where they got them;

  • Skipping school or extracurricular activities;

  • Not talking about what they have been doing, or lying about it;

  • Spending less time with friends, or changing friend groups suddenly;

  • Getting lots of messages from someone they only know online;

  • Not wanting other people around when they are with their significant other; and

  • Not talking about their thoughts or feelings anymore

Keep in mind that some of these things may be a normal part of growing up — like wanting to spend less time with parents. In combination with other warning signs, however, these otherwise typical child or teen behaviors may indicate that they are being groomed. Watching for general warning signs of abuse may also help you determine if your child or teen is being abused.

In adults, the warning signs of grooming are similar:

  • Becoming withdrawn, or seeming troubled about something but not willing to talk about it;

  • Having unexplained gifts;

  • Being reluctant to see you, or refusing visits;

  • Showing signs of financial distress, like money disappearing from their bank account or being suddenly unable to pay for food or bills;

  • Spending more time on the phone or online than usual; and

  • Talking about a new friend or partner, and never being clear about who they are or how they met them.

While parents and caregivers should be alert for signs of grooming, not everyone who is kind to your child or the person in your care is trying to abuse them. Most people in your life are well-intentioned and trustworthy. However, you should be aware that sometimes, kindness is just a way to gain your trust to have more direct access to a potential victim. Be sure to talk to your kids and adults in your care about sexual abuse (in an age appropriate manner), and let them know that they can always come to you if anyone is making them uncomfortable or crossing a line.

If you suspect that someone in your life is being groomed or if your life has been affected by abuse, we are here to help — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call our hotline anytime at 1-888-832-2272 (TDD available) to speak to a trained crisis counselor. All calls are free of charge, and can be anonymous.



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