With all of the focus on “stranger danger”, it may come as a surprise to many parents to learn that child sexual abuse is far more likely to involve someone the child (and often the family) knows. Most sexual abusers bide their time and are skilled at hiding their true motivations, unlike the popular image of the bad stranger who uses candy to lure unsuspecting children into a car. This can make it more difficult not only for children to spot a sexual abuser, but for their parents as well.
The good news is that a little knowledge can go a long way. The process by which sexual abusers win a child’s trust, known as grooming, does not vary much from abuser to abuser. The details might change, but the steps and behaviors involved are very similar. Learning to recognize these stages and behaviors of the grooming process - and in turn teaching your children how to recognize them - can help to prevent the situation from escalating.
When talking to children about grooming, it’s critical for parents to define the concept in a way children can understand. Sexual abusers don’t want to get caught. Much like a spider building a web to catch unsuspecting insects, they use their own tricks and traps laid out over time to falsely gain a child’s trust. Explain to your children that in the same way that they might “get ready” to leave the house by combing their hair, brushing their teeth, or putting on clean clothes, sexual abusers are getting a child ready to be abused by using a different kind of grooming.
Before they ever progress to actual physical abuse of a child, sexual abusers tend to use some of these common tricks and traps:
- Forging a friendship with the child by offering attention or giving gifts that the child may not otherwise receive
- Pushing the boundaries of a child’s comfort with non-sexual touch, such as putting an arm around the shoulders, patting the back, etc.
- Engaging the child in games that involve undressing, tickling, or roughhousing
- Progressing to “accidental” touching of child’s private parts
- Using blame, shame, or intimidation to keep a child from telling about the behavior
- Encouraging a child to break rules, lie, or keep secrets from a trusted caregiver
- Sharing pornographic images
It’s not enough to identify these typical stages of grooming behavior, however. Your children also need to know how to respond if they are confronted with these situations. Give concrete examples of the above-listed grooming behaviors, and ask your children how they would respond. In each scenario, reassure your children that no one has a right to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, and that telling a trusted adult can never be considering “tattling” in this case. Perhaps most importantly, ensure that your children always have access to a trusted caregiver who can listen and take action if they suspect they are being groomed by a sexual abuser.