When discussing the topic of child sexual abuse with most adults, I tend to get inquisitive looks or blank stares, when I first address the subject of grooming. The looks are usually followed with the question, “What is grooming?” Most often, adults think of grooming as brushing a child’s hair. Unfortunately, in the language used to discuss child sexual abuse and the behavior of the sexual predator, this word is far worse and has implications that actually harm a child.
Grooming is highly manipulative behavior carried out to desensitize the victim and to create a trusting relationship with the family. Grooming the family is a technique utilized by the sexual predator in order to gain access and alone time with the child. If the sexual predator already has a relationship with the family, then little grooming will be needed in order to gain access to the child (i.e. family members, friends, etc). Once the sexual predator has the trust and access, then they can begin to manipulate and test the waters with the child.
Grooming is usually a slow process and very sneaky. The sexual predator pushes to see how far they can get with the child and pulls back when they get resistance. Then, the predator will return to push again. A predator will continue to push and pull to break down the child’s inhibitions to attain their end result of satisfying their sexual need.
I will share a list of grooming techniques with you; however, it is important to remember that grooming is a big picture. While a lot of adults may have tickled a child, their intentions were probably not to sexually abuse that child. A predator has a pattern of behavior, which most often builds over a period of time as the predator gains trust.
Some grooming techniques include:
- Desensitizing a child to touch. Most desensitizing is focused on erogenous zones. These behaviors include: tickling, caressing ears, tucking hair behind the ear, slowly rubbing upper thighs, tickling or caressing feet, gently rubbing arms, etc. This also includes ‘accidental touching.’ The perpetrator will make it look accidental; however, it is very intentional. For example, a cousin bending over while standing up to tickle a child and then aggressively pushing the child into his penis area while continuing to tickle.
- Desensitizing a child to attention. These behaviors include: an abundance of picture taking, videotaping, watching them get undressed/dressed, walking in on a child when he/she is in the bath, having a child run around naked (while videotaping/taking pictures), etc.
- The Guilt Trap. This includes breaking down a child’s intuition by making them feel guilty when they do say ‘No.’ For example, someone’s uncle says, “Time to give me a kiss, I need to go.” The child replies with, “No.” The uncle then says, “Oh man, well, your sister gave me a kiss…aren’t you going to?”
- Gift Giving. This includes giving the child gifts/favors to make the child feel ‘special.’ This also includes gift giving that the parents would especially say no to such as drugs, alcohol, etc.
- Lap sitting. It is important to pay attention to who is initiating the lap sitting. If your child wants to sit on a relative’s lap that is different than the relative placing the child in their lap without permission from the child. It is very important though to be sure there is a policy of no lap sitting in the facilities where your child participates in activities, including church activities.
- Seeking alone time with a child. The majority of abuse occurs when a sexual predator is alone with a child. Perpetrators seek to normalize this alone-time while most likely using other techniques to desensitize the child (i.e. taking a child off alone and then tickling and rubbing ears or giving candy or a gift).
- Teaching a child to tell/keep secrets. A perpetrator will begin by telling little secrets to normalize the behavior before conditioning the child to keep the abuse a secret from everyone in the future.
- Stepping over boundaries given by the parent and/or child. For example, a friend says to the child, “Come here” while motioning with his finger. The child replies with, “No!” The friend says, “Oh, come here.” The child replies with another “No” while stomping her foot. The parent in the room reinforces the child by saying, “That’s right. No means no!” The friend then proceeds to step over the boundaries of both the child and the parent by responding, “It’s important that you come here.” The child ends it by saying, “NOOOO way!”
It’s so important to note that grooming can and does take place in front of the parent. By being aware of these red flags, you are more likely to set up boundaries so that you can send a strong message to the adult and child that these behaviors are not okay. If the child believes that these are okay, then the perpetrator can continue to go down the path of least resistance and set the child up for abuse that they can easily get away with. Setting boundaries does not mean you are accusing that person of being a perpetrator. But setting boundaries is a necessity to always err on the side of the child and set a precedent that those behaviors are not allowed and will not be tolerated by any adult/older youth.
Jennifer Hillman is a licensed speech-language pathologist, producer of the AWARD-WINNING educational DVD, “The Five B’s”, mother of two and an active advocate and speaker for sexual abuse prevention education in the home, churches and in schools.
For more information on this topic and the AWARD-WINNING educational DVD on empowering children about body safety to prevent sexual abuse, go to www.baileybeebelieves.com.