Child sexual abuse can occur in any location or social situation, including at school, in the home, or while participating in community activities. Most commonly, an adult abuser will engage in a “grooming process” before and during the abuse. This term refers to a pattern of behavior an abuser uses to gain access to a child, manipulate them into situations where the abuse occurs, and reduce the risk that the child will disclose the abuse.
What Is Grooming?
Abusers commonly manipulate their targets into thinking the abuse was a natural expression of love or affection. They often convince the child that they were a willing participant or even that the abuse was the child’s own idea. As a result, many survivors spend decades of their lives believing they were willing participants in their own abuse. They may not realize the true nature of what occurred until they are much older. Sometimes this occurs when they learn the same perpetrator abused others. Sometimes it happens when the abuse survivor’s child reaches the same age as the survivor when the abuse occurred.
If you are reflecting on your childhood and wondering whether you were groomed as a child, you may want to consider whether you recognize any of the following common grooming behavior patterns in the interactions you had with the adult in question:
1. The abuser created and fostered a sense of personal intimacy with you. They wanted to learn all about your personal life. They created inside jokes, secrets, and private nicknames shared only between you. They gave you gifts and offered you special privileges. They introduced you to media, literature, art, or music they claimed was special just to you two.
2. They took steps to isolate you, physically or emotionally, from your parents and peers. They said the two of you had a special connection that others didn’t share. They made you believe they really saw and understood you in ways your friends and parents did not. They may have found ways to be alone with you by offering to “help out” your parents by taking you to certain places or doing special activities with you.
3. They started using their influence to affect your behavior, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes more openly. They may have started small by influencing your non-sexual behavior. For example, they may have influenced how you spent your free time by telling you you’re “too special” to be wasting your time on certain things or hanging around certain people. You may have found yourself doing things without really knowing why and then afterward being praised by the abuser for your “wise choices.”
4. They attempted to make you believe you were peers on equal footing despite the difference in age. They may have done this by acting as if you were older than you really were by doing things like praising you for your maturity and independence, calling you an “old soul,” and complimenting your ability to make adult choices and go your own way. Sometimes, they may also have acted as if they themselves were younger than they were, by calling themselves “a kid at heart,” saying they are different than other adults or engaging in childlike games or interests (particularly ones that mirrored your own interests).
5. The abuser may have attempted to normalize the idea of so-called “relationships” between adults and children. For example, they might have told you that it is perfectly normal for children to marry adults in other cultures. They may have encouraged you to read stories or listen to music where “romance” between adults and children is condoned or celebrated.
6. After gaining your trust and establishing a pattern of control over your behavior, they attempted to sexualize the relationship. Sometimes the abuser will bring up the topic of sexual behavior first. They may start discussing adult sexual behavior, showing the child pornography, or find excuses to be naked around the child.
Other times, the abuser will take advantage of the child’s perfectly innocent comments or behavior to make the child think that sexualizing the relationship was their own idea. For example, a child may say they want to fall in love and have children someday. A healthy adult would see this as innocent behavior and move on. An abuser may use it as an opportunity. They may offer to explain how babies are made or show the child how adults kiss each other. Later they will convince the child that the child was the one who wanted to talk about or do such things since they were the one who first brought up the topic of love and children.
7. They made you afraid to disclose the true nature of the relationship. If the abuser is in a position to meet the child’s daily needs, the abuser may subtly imply that if anyone finds out about the relationship, they won’t be able to see each other anymore or meet that need. Other times it is more overt. The abuser may suggest that if anyone found out, they would both go to jail or that the child’s parents would be shunned or harmed. Whether it is subtle or overt, the result is that child is left with a fear that something very bad will happen if anyone finds out.
Whether you recognize these signs of grooming or not, it is important to remember that if an adult engaged in sexual activity with you while you were still a child, you are not the one to blame. It is the adult who was at fault. Enforcing proper boundaries is always the responsibility of the adult, not the child. Even if a child were to directly ask an adult to engage in sexual activity with them, it is the adult’s responsibility to say no. That child needs help and guidance. They do not deserve to be taken advantage of for their immaturity.
Reframing your experience may be extremely difficult and painful. It is normal to have a wide range of conflicting feelings. You may even grieve the loss of what you previously believed was a healthy relationship. Therapy can help guide you on your journey. Be gentle with yourself.
Remember that a child’s brain is not yet fully formed, but now as an adult, you have knowledge and power you did not have as a child. You are a survivor, and you are not alone.
Contact the Lamothe Law Firm – Trust that We Will Believe You and that We’re Here to Help
If you or a loved one is a sexual abuse survivor and want to hold your abuser accountable, please contact us today for a free consultation. We’ll give you the sensitivity, compassion, and confidentiality you need as we help you obtain the compensation you deserve.