Signs Your Child is Being Groomed by a Sexual Predator

by Kristi S. Schubert

Child sexual abuse is devastating for its victims and their families. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse have been found to be approximately 10 times more likely to attempt suicide. It is estimated that up to 99% of all cases of child sexual abuse involve some elements of what is known as “sexual grooming.” Sexual grooming refers to certain techniques and manipulation tactics that abusers use to prepare their victims and ensure that they will not get caught. Learning how to recognize would-be predators and identify red-flag behavior will help you protect your child.

Know Who to Look For

Pay close attention to the adults your child already knows and loves, including family members. Ninety percent of children who are sexually abused will be abused by someone they already know and trust. Also, pay close attention to males. Ninety-six percent of child sexual abuse perpetrators are male.

Do not lower your guard just because a person seems charming, well-liked, or wealthy. Some predators are experts at cultivating kind and generous outward personas. They use this to gain trust from other adults and get access to children. Some common characteristics of sexual predators who prey upon children include the following:

• They engage in an abnormal amount of physical contact with children (tickling, wrestling, etc.).
• They enjoy being in the company of children more than they enjoy the company of adults.
• They have unusually close relationships or “special bonds” with children.
• They volunteer for anything and everything involving children.
• They have very few friends their own age.

The Predators’ Step-by-Step Process

Many sexual predators use a multi-step “grooming” process to choose victims and manipulate their behavior. The steps typically include the following:

Step One – Target Victim

The predator identifies a victim who seems vulnerable, often looking for a child with low self-esteem, an obedient/compliant personality, or mental disability. If possible, he or she also assesses the child’s home life for signs that the parents are uninvolved or pre-occupied. Sexual predators have acknowledged that parents who consistently monitor their child’s electronic communication are one of the top deterrents when they are selecting a victim.

Red Flag Behavior:
• After your child suffers an injury or traumatic event, a previously uninterested adult suddenly begins to show the child unusual attention.
• You learn that an adult you hardly know has been texting or emailing your child without your knowledge.

Step Two – Create Trust

The perpetrator gradually gains the child’s trust by showing the child special attention, sometimes providing lavish praise or gifts. He or she provides a sympathetic ear when the child is upset, and ask lots of personal questions about the child’s home life, social life, likes, dislikes, and fears. Sometimes, the perpetrator will also engage in this trust-gaining process with the child’s parents, by doing favors or offering to help with home repairs.

Red Flag Behavior:
• An adult repeatedly compliments your child’s physical appearance or body.
• A teacher or coach is overly affectionate with your child or compliments your child more or with greater enthusiasm than he compliments other children in the same group.
• Early on in a new relationship, your romantic partner shows highly enthusiastic interest in bonding with your child or learning everything about him or her.

Step Three – Create Dependency

The perpetrator begins manipulating the relationship with the child to create dependence and intimacy, convincing the child that they have a special bond together. The child begins to feel that the perpetrator can give him or her something no one else can or will. The perpetrator may tell the child that he or she is the only person who truly understands, cares for, or protects the child.

Red Flag Behavior:
• Your child begins to talk about an adult in a way that makes you think “wow, I didn’t know their relationship was so close.”
• You find out that an adult has given your child an affectionate “pet name” that was never explained to you and that other adults don’t use.
• Your child complains that a certain adult understands them better than you do.

Step Four – Get the Child Alone

The predator looks for opportunities to be alone with the child and may offer to take the child on outings, babysit for him or her, or provide some type of private lessons. When the predator is a family member of the child, and already lives with the child, many times this will take the form of sneaking into the child’s bedroom when others aren’t around.

Red Flag Behavior:
• An adult volunteers to give your child rides to or from somewhere on a regular basis.
• An adult suggests that he wants to give your child private lessons or tutoring.
• Your romantic partner constantly volunteers, without being asked, to babysit your child.

Step Five – Create a Sense of Secrecy

The perpetrator begins to create a sense of secrecy around the relationship with the child. He or she may give the child special gifts but tell the child not to tell anyone because other kids might get jealous. He or she may invent a “secret game” the two can play together. The perpetrator will try to learn what level of control the child’s parents maintain over the child’s phone or computer, and determine the best way to contact the child privately without the parents finding out.

Red Flag Behavior:
• An adult, particularly a non-family member, gives your child money or a gift without your knowledge for no special occasion.
• Your child is suddenly secretive about who he or she is talking to on the phone or computer, or about where he or she got certain items that you didn’t buy.
• Your romantic partner or family member suddenly seems to have lots of “inside jokes” or secrets with your child that you and other adults are excluded from.

Step Six – Sexualize the Relationship

Next, the predator will start touching the child more frequently. At first, in ways that are not overtly sexual, like rubbing the child’s leg, drying them off with a towel, or cuddling. Gradually, this escalates to more overtly sexual behavior. Along the way, the predator may desensitize the child to sexual ideas by talking to him or her about sex, sharing pornography or finding excuses to be naked together. When initiating sexual activity with a young child, a predator often tells the child that the sexual activity is a “game,” and then call the “game” something innocent-sounding so that if the child mentions the game, other adults won’t know what it means.

Red Flag Behavior:
• A family member or romantic partner constantly asks your child to sit on his or her lap or touches your child more frequently/affectionately than other children.
• You find out that an adult bathed or went “skinny dipping” with your child.
• You learn that an adult has discussed topics that are sexual in nature with your child without your knowledge or permission.
• Your child suddenly knows information you did not teach about sexual behavior or his or her body.

What to Do if You See a Red Flag

If the red flag is possibly innocent, such as excessive compliments or giving your child a prize without asking for your permission, you can gently and respectfully ask why the adult violated that boundary. If the intentions were innocent, there will be a good explanation, and he or she will likely apologize for any confusion. If needed, you can gently express any lingering concerns you have, and provide instruction for future interactions with your child. However, if the intentions were predatory, you will have just put a predator on notice that you are an attentive, informed parent, and you are watching him or her.

You should also ask your child directly if the adult who engaged in the red flag behavior has done anything that made your child uncomfortable. However, remain vigilant even if your child says no. Many children who have been abused will deny it when asked, often due to shame or fear of retaliation by the abuser.

If the red flag is very troubling, you should report it immediately to the department of child services in your state and/or the police. In most states, the child services department is required to investigate immediately. To avoid damaging reputations unfairly, they will typically keep the identity of the potential perpetrator confidential until evidence of abuse is uncovered. If the perpetrator works for a youth-oriented organization, it may also be a good idea to report the facts of whatever you’ve witnessed to the organization. You need not make any accusations, but they should be aware of the behavior. If others have reported that same individual exhibiting red flag behaviors before, the organization will want to investigate.

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