When grooming a child for sexual abuse, a child molester first makes sure that the victim doesn’t even begin to question what is really going on. Just as in a destructive cult, or any other abusive relationship, the victim must not suspect for a moment that the horrifying, painful, humiliating experience is anything other than their own choice. The predator’s goal is to make the victim feel responsible for the situation, even that they have caused it to happen – when, in fact, the child is being subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of a skilled predator has as few options as a mouse in a trap.
Techniques and Methods:
It is important to remember that every situation is unique; not all of these methods are used by every predator every time, and some will be hard to spot, even camouflaged as appropriate social interaction. Whichever of these mind-controlling tricks a predator uses, they will be sure to use them simultaneously; the various tools of influence overlapping and dove-tailing, weaving the victim into a web of confusion, guilt, obligation, with warped and distorted boundaries. These are the most common methods and techniques a pedophile will use to groom a child:
Exploiting the Child’s Need for Affection and Approval – just as a cult will “love-bomb” potential members, a predator will do everything to shower the child with pretended affection and kindness; the child who does not receive adequate love and emotional support from a responsible parent or guardian is naturally more vulnerable to such manipulation, but even those with a stable and loving home might still be targeted. If the predator is a parent or guardian, he will warp and distort the existing familial bond, grooming the child to believe that they have a “special” relationship with the abuser.
Exploiting Emergencies/ Vulnerabilities – some predators “court” a single parent with children, not to form an adult relationship, but for access to the children. Sometimes a predator will use a crisis, such as a family emergency, to become that “special friend” to the parent/s, trusted enough to babysit the children while they attend to the immediate situation. Sometimes, a predator targeting a child for actual abduction will “create” an emergency to convince the child to go with them: “Your mom is in the hospital, and I’ve been sent to fetch you.”
Exploiting Authority/ Social Standing – if the predator is a popular teacher, or a church leader, or even a sports coach who has achieved “hero” status in the community, that position will be exploited. We are taught from a very young age to obey those in authority; it’s a natural part of learning how to work within a community. However, history is full of examples of people in authority using that status to not only abuse others, but to evade detection, or at least, public detection and subsequent justice. One predator mentioned in the Megan’s Law parent information resource was a well-known and respected pediatrician – so trusted by parents, that he was able to take his victims away for weekend outings! A pedophile with enough social status in the community can keep victims silent and compliant for fear of losing their own status as his “special” friend, as well instilling fear of social rejection for exposing the predator to scrutiny. An extreme example of this behavior is found in jailed Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints leader, convicted pedophile Warren Jeffs, who, according to his nephew, told the boy that the sexual assault was “God’s will.”
Subverting Parent/Guardian Boundaries – if a child has a strong, healthy relationship with just one parent, that child will be protected enough to hamper any predator’s plans for them, or at least make the abuse harder to hide. A pedophile understands this, and will pick at the relationship, unsettling it by driving in small but significant wedges. Often, the selfsame boundaries that the parent has set to keep the child safe are used as an emotional lever: in the grooming process, whether through e-messages or conversation, a warped narrative is custom-made for the victim, where the parents are cast as villains, obsessed with pointless and cruel rules, while the predator is the only one who really understands.
Secret-Keeping – To further interfere with the authority of a caregiver, the predator will also coach a child into keeping secrets – at first, mundane, seemingly harmless “little secrets”, used to test if the child can be trusted not to tell, but this will then progress to more harmful secrets – little bits of “don’t tell your folks, but…” that can be used later for emotional blackmail (“I wonder what your folks would think if I told them about…”), but also other, more unsettling things, like any sexual details shared while the predator is boundary-testing and desensitizing the victim.
Gift Giving and Exchanging – while this technique can also be used to erode the parent/child relationship, it mostly takes advantage of the principle of reciprocity: the pedophile makes gifts his victim cannot get anywhere else. Gift-giving fulfills multiple purposes at once: adult-level video games, pornography, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol will not only loosen a youth’s inhibitions, but will also create a feeling of indebtedness to the “benefactor”.
After a “honeymoon” period, the child will learn that those gifts aren’t free – and that the pedophile expects to be repaid with the coin of their innocence: sexual involvement. The predator might also request tokens from the victim, usually photographs, but sometimes other, much more personal items, depending upon whether (and what sort of) fetishism is involved. While most fetishists are not predators, and many predators are not fetishists, the two characteristics can and do coincide at times, with horrifying results. Not all predators collect pictures, but enough do, and often will use it as a method of control. At first, the requested images may be innocent, but the child will be cajoled into sending ever more suggestive poses: this serves a dual purpose: first, desensitizing the victim to posing in front of a camera, and second, providing material for eventual blackmail and emotional leverage.
Age-Inappropriate Interaction – the pedophile will often treat the child as a little adult, not only with gifts inappropriate to the victim’s age, but also adult conversation beyond the child’s emotional ability. Apart from the boundary-desensitizing inherent in showing a child pornography or talking about sex, these activities can also have the very real effect of destroying the child’s innocence in the same way as the physical aspects of the abuse. Getting a child to discuss their sexual feelings, or even their genitals, not only mortifies and confuses the child, but also strips the natural innocence of childhood away – the sexually abused individual is forced into an adult knowledge of a world they are not emotionally ready for.
Using Guilt, Teasing, and Threats – often a predator will resort to using cajoling and teasing to pressure a victim into compliance; natural misgivings and “red-flags” can be minimized and dismissed with a glib, “Oh, it’s only a bit of fun!” or a “What are you so worried about? You’re just being silly!” The predator will combine this with guilt, statements like, “I thought we had something special!” or “Don’t you like me?” confuse the child further. A less subtle form of this behavior is when the interaction is peppered with sly threats, veiled and otherwise – these can range from “You don’t want us to get in trouble, do you?”, through “Nobody will ever believe you”, all the way to “I’ll hurt you/your family if you tell.” Susan Forward’s Emotional Blackmail is a useful resource for understanding the dynamics of fear, obligation and guilt.
Exploiting the Child’s Own Curiosity – children are naturally curious about their bodies, and the feelings they find in their solitary explorations are pleasant and entirely normal; a healthy, supportive parent or guardian knows this, and gives the child adequate privacy to develop this important relationship with themselves. A predator, however, will intrude upon this most intimate of boundaries under the guise of “teaching” the child – when in fact, the only education is one of pain, confusion, and humiliation, as they are diverted away from learning about their own sexuality, and instead forced to serve as their abuser’s plaything.
Exploiting the Child’s Own Sensuality – it is possible, unfortunately, for sensations of involuntary, physical pleasure to occur, sometimes in the same instance as the victim’s natural revulsion at what is happening. There is no way that a child’s developing nerve centers can interpret the stimulation properly as unwelcome or inappropriate. These sensations of unwilling pleasure in no way excuse the actions of the pedophile: the child instinctively knows that this interaction is inappropriate, but lacks the intellectual and social context to understand why. They only know that the adult present – the person they have been groomed to trust as a friend – is telling them that what they know to be wrong, isn’t wrong, but right. This terrible use of gaslighting, combined with these deeply confusing feelings, generates immense uncertainty and inner upheaval. The predator will use this to his or her advantage, gradually coaching the child to ignore the natural repulsion, and instead to believe that what they are being forced to do is acceptable, even a “normal” part of a “loving” relationship.
The Stages of Grooming
Grooming deliberately creates a relationship; it is a warped, coercive relationship, but it is a relationship nonetheless, and a pedophile will work slowly at grooming a child – this is not usually a process of hours or days, but of weeks, months and sometimes years. If the grooming is taking place in the “real world”, that is, not via the Internet, the predator will most likely be grooming the family as well as the child; whether the pedophile is a neighbor or even a close relative, others around the child have to be convinced that nothing wrong is happening – unless, of course, they are themselves under the predator’s control; many domestic “partners” of sexual predators are victims themselves: too afraid to speak, even coerced into enabling the abuse. In these sad homes, the abuse can take place wherever, whenever and however the pedophile wishes, but those who go beyond their own families to sexually abuse children must create a “bubble” of silence and compliance, a separate place away from the rest of the world, where the abuse can happen uninterrupted and undetected – hence the grooming process.
Although there are, terribly, “how to” manuals on the subject, most predators seem to understand naturally, and the stages of abuse conform to mostly predictable patterns. The Internet only changes the medium of communication, but not the essence of the manipulation, and the ‘relationship arc’ will look similar, whether the predator is online or in the neighborhood. Once again, it is important to note that, as with all human interactions, every story of abuse is subtly unique, and any of these stages might be reversed, or happen at the same time, or even be skipped altogether.
Most pedophiles are male, so we have used male pronouns, but there also female pedophiles.
Stage One: Contact and Introduction – unless the predator is a relative or legal guardian of a child, he must first cultivate a relationship with the victim. If the predator is not using the Internet, he will negotiate with the parents for “alone time” with the child; this is made easier by some religious and social organizations, with the predator using otherwise wholesome and mostly blameless institutions to get a child alone and pliant to commands: even “babysitting” can be re-fitted to the evil purposes of an abuser. Some predators will pose as “talent scouts” to gain access to children with special abilities in the arts or sports; some will lure children they already know into their homes, promising payment for “help” with a few chores. The Larry Nassar case has shown just how embedded into a system a predatory pedophile can be, and how much the system can protect the predator.
For the cyber-pedophile, access depends on how effectively the child is monitored online by a responsible guardian (an over-monitored child may become secretive and so more available to predators). Many, but not all, online predators pose as another child, only slightly older than the victim. “Child-friendly” social networking sites such as the now-defunct “Club Penguin” are excellent places for youngsters to engage with their peers, but they are also the natural hunting grounds of the internet-based pedophile. Many predators will claim to be a friend of a friend to get a foot in the door. But whether the interaction is in the real or the virtual world, the aim of the first stage is the same: the predator must befriend the child, and, through whatever methods available, gain entry into their circle.
Stage Two: Relationship-Building – once the predator has introduced himself, whether in person or online, he will work to become that child’s “ideal” friend – he will be quick find out what the child likes and dislikes, enthusiastically expressing agreement and paying the child many compliments (“love-bombing”).
Most of us, when we feel liked, are happy to share everything about ourselves, and children are the same. The predator will pretend to “trade secrets” with the child, but will actually make up information to lure the victim – while the predator learns everything possible about the potential victim.
Many predators are expert in drawing out information, without seeming to be prying; a pedophile will pretend involvement in whatever activity or interest the child likes best, and use the tactic of “comparing notes” to find out even the most intimate details of his victim’s school routine, extracurricular activities, and family life. He will learn about and exploit any tension or disagreement with other adults: “your parents make you go to bed at ten? that’s so lame”, or “your folks are so mean to you!” – any variations on these sentiments, and more, are used to drive a wedge between the child and any protecting adult.
If the predator is online, this is the stage at which he will question the child about any vulnerabilities – the household patterns, the child’s school and recreation schedule, the movements and habits of the adults caring for the child, whether or not anyone else uses the computer the child is using – all these details will be skillfully extracted from the child without the child ever realizing the sensitivity or significance of the information they are sharing. Even the “face-to-face” groomer will engage in some form of fact-gathering to gauge the form and strength of the protection keeping the child from his grasp, much the same way a bank robber will first “case the joint”.
Stage Three: Testing and Desensitizing Boundaries – part of the gradual process of the abuser to test the child’s personal boundaries, using a “push and pull” dynamic to draw the child in, alternately pushing into their personal space, and then pulling away before the child realizes why they feel uncomfortable. Slowly, the predator will make the child used to more intimate expressions of affection, touching an “appropriate” area – such as an arm or shoulder – first, simply getting the child used to contact and the encroachment into their personal space.
Often, the predator will instigate “tickling” or “wrestling” games, or other physical play where the child’s boundaries can be easily broached “accidentally”; if the child objects, the predator can easily feign ignorance, and withdraw to an acceptable distance – for a while. The victim will be subjected to gradually more lewd talk, as the predator tests the victim’s resistance to sexual language, slowly desensitizing the child to such concepts – many times the language will be couched in dirty jokes or anecdotes of sexual incidents. Sometimes, the predator will show the child sexually explicit drawings, or sexually-themed manga and anime intended for an adult audience, or even actual pornography. The predator thus gradually wears down the child’s resistance to this violation of boundaries, and so the victim is kept perpetually off-balance, not sure what is going on.
Stage Four: Honeymoon/ “Exclusive” Relationship – now that the relationship has been established, the predator will draw the child in, using the language of romance, love and affection, making the target feel unique, treasured and unconditionally supported. Although it is the opposite of a consensual relationship, many predators use this stage to convince the child that this is a “loving” relationship, praising the victim in glowing terms every time they comply with a demand for greater physical intimacy, reminding them constantly that they are cherished and loved.
The predator will be careful to remind the child to keep their “special” relationship a secret. All exchanges will end positively – farewells will be filled with love and pet names, to convince the child that they are in a two-way relationship of mutual respect, and that they are in control and could say “no,” if they wanted to – but who would say “no” to someone who loves them so much?
Stage Five: Our Dirty Little Secret – here the child falls completely under the spell of the abuser; the child may still be gaslit to believe that the relationship is consensual, but the honeymoon is over, and the gifts that the predator lavished upon them earlier now come with a price. If the grooming taken place over the Internet, then this is the stage where a personal meeting will be arranged (if the groomer is not local but part of a gang, the child will be “handed” off to someone who is). Sometimes, child pornography, rather than a personal meeting, is the goal; any suggestive photos sent previously are used as leverage to coerce the child into posing for something more explicit, or even “performing” on video. They may even be threatened or blackmailed into recruiting other children for the predator to exploit and abuse. Often, the secrets confessed and the embarrassing information gleaned during the “Relationship-Building” stage will be used to coerce child into this and other, further humiliations and acts of sexual servitude. At this stage, the child might be “shared” with other pedophiles, even trafficked outright – if this is the goal of the predator, the child will be lured away from home to meet with their “friend”. Often directed to keep the meeting secret, they will slip away, and disappear, into the twilight world of the sex trade, where the grooming is far more severe, and any pretense of romance – or hope for rescue – becomes distant.
If the child has not been removed from the reach of any protective influence, and could still possibly tell a parent or teacher about the abuse, the predator will have to use fear, guilt, and obligation to keep the child silent and compliant throughout the ordeal – which might last for years. The predator will use gaslighting to convince the child that this is their choice, even when the “nastier” bits of the relationship scare or disgust them. The predator will be careful to keep the victim confused, alternating cutting guilt with sugary romance; many times, the language addressing the actual sexual abuse is veiled in romantic terms, or in “code phrases” intended to minimize the effect of the horrors described. Although many victims will believe, during the abuse, that they are the center of attention, most predators are serial, repeat offenders: they will have a “stable” of victims. There is nothing “special” in the relationship: they have been coerced and abused through the grooming process.
Red Flags – to Spot a Predator
Sexual predators are very rarely the shady-looking guy living in a broken-down van next to the schoolyard. They can be your child’s piano teacher, a little league coach, or a pastor, priest or church elder. They might even be a new romantic interest in your life who seems really good with your kids. Despite the use of “he” throughout this article, they can be female, and of any age, profession, and social strata. Although some predators seek out strangers (particularly online predators), most children who are sexually abused have a pre-existing relationship with their abuser – if they’re not a parent or relative, they are likely to be a family friend, or a trusted community figure.
It would be incredibly convenient, and would make life much easier, if there were some easy way to spot child molesters. Unfortunately, they can, like any predator, present a very charming appearance, and will work hard to earn your trust. Many pedophiles have abused children undetected for decades, because those around them couldn’t believe that such a “pillar of the community” could be guilty of such a horrible crime. Sadly, when such a trusted person is accused, parents might turn on their own children, unable to believe that they could have ever trusted someone who would harm their child; surely the child is mistaken, or even lying to make trouble! When the abuse is occurring as part of a high-control group with a religious background, the accusing child might even be accused of “possession” by evil spirits.
A pedophile can work his way into your social circle and even become a trusted friend (or romantic partner), all the while carefully disguising his true intentions. However, there are certain “red flags” that might mean that the person is a pedophile who is attempting to groom a child. Just a few of these signs might describe an otherwise harmless adult with boundary issues, but the more of these occur, the more you should trust your gut instinct, and place some distance between that person and your child.
Consider it a red flag if a friend, acquaintance, or even family member:
- wants to spend more time with your child than with you
- wants to spend time alone with your child, away from you
- is fonder of your child than your child is of them
- insists on physical affection – hugging, kissing, tickling or wrestling – and does not respect the child’s refusal
- seems overly inquisitive about your child and their daily routine
- is inappropriately interested in the child’s sexual development, and even asks the child embarrassingly intimate questions, or makes age-inappropriate sexual comments
- spends most of their time with children, and seem to relate better to them than to adults, and has little or no interest in spending time with people their own age
- doesn’t have appropriate boundaries, and does not respect anyone’s wishes about appropriate behavior
- has no respect for privacy and will walk into the child’s bedroom or bathroom without first knocking
- has very quickly become your “best friend” ever – and seems too good to be true
- continually offers to babysit when not asked, or even offers to take your children out on day trips or overnight outings without you
- expresses enthusiasm for everything you like – and especially everything your child likes
- praises your child excessively, and your parenting skills even more
- buys expensive or age-inappropriate gifts for your children, particularly if it is a gift you have told them you don’t want the child to have (a non-custodial adult buying a child or teen an unrequested cell-phone is a definite red flag!)
- takes photographs of your child without your consent, or remark inappropriately about your child’s appearance or dress
- wants to control your relationship with your children
- makes grandiose boasts to the child, or even you
- constantly brags about how good they are with children
- coaches your child to keep secrets from you
Red Flags – to Spot a Victim
Children who are sexually abused have been subjected to more than the physical aspects of the abuse; low self-esteem and feelings of guilt and deep confusion can last for a lifetime, if not addressed properly. One or two of these signs might point to trouble; if your child exhibits most of them, you should investigate further, with the help of a trusted, properly certified professional. Consider it a warning sign that your child might be being abused if they:
- seem scared or reluctant to be in the company of certain people, or inexplicably scared of going to a certain location, or visiting someone’s house
- are reluctant to undress, even to bathe
- have difficulty sleeping, or frequent nightmares
- experience mood swings
- express exaggerated rage, fear, anxiety or grief
- avoid being touched, or stiffen when embraced
- display loss of appetite, or even an eating disorder
- have a sudden, drastic drop in grades at school
- suddenly give up a previously loved activity or hobby
- produce disturbing art: drawing unusual, bizarre pictures or writing disturbingly graphic poetry using “too-adult” themes
- express sexual knowledge inappropriate to their age, or use new language to describe their body parts
- act out with other children – sometimes even sexually
- are suicidal, or engage in cutting or other self-harm
- have reverted to thumb-sucking, bedwetting, or other previously outgrown behavior
What to tell your kids
First and foremost, that you love them, cherish them, value them, and that they will not get in trouble for telling you the truth – no matter what has happened. Too many abusers are able to use fear of parental punishment as emotional leverage in their favor.
It is also important not to scare children: while researching and writing this article, it was difficult not to imagine that there is a predator lurking around every corner, and to think that every child is constantly at grave risk. This is, of course not true: the majority of the people you will meet in your lifetime are good, decent, honest folks who would not harm any child, let alone assault them in such a soul-destroying manner. Only a minority of children are exposed to traumatizing abuse, so it is harmful to teach your child to distrust every single person they meet, though it is sensible to be cautious about people until we know them well. There are a few good, common-sense rules that will make your child less vulnerable to abuse, and to accepting bad treatment in general:
- Remind children to trust their own instincts, especially that “yucky” feeling. Our natural instincts can clue us into the “not quite right” behavior of a person even before we consciously understand what we have seen that elicited a feeling of unease. Children are no exception to this; sometimes their gut feeling is all the more accurate, for its lack of social conditioning and cultural prejudices. Instinct or intuition should always be checked rationally, but that is best done away from the possibility of harm.
- Anything normally covered by a bathing suit belongs to the individual, and them alone. Nobody can or should be touching these parts on a child’s body, except for parents during toilet training, when washing an infant, or a during a medical examination, with the parents present.
- If someone wants your child to do something that feels “yucky,” or that they don’t think is right, they should check with you first.
- When saying “no” to something that feels “yucky,” it’s okay to be impolite or even shout – especially if a stranger is trying to take them somewhere.
- Let your child know that it’s their right to speak up if they feel their personal boundaries have been violated. Even if it’s not a sexual boundary, but merely an annoyance, such as ruffling a child’s hair, if the child finds it intrusive, it’s an invasion – and it’s never too early to teach our children to protect their own personal space. Children should be taught that they are never under any obligation to hug or kiss anyone, and that no one has the right to touch them, if they don’t want to be touched.
- If they ever feel uncomfortable about something someone has said to them, done to them, or even just shown them, they are to tell you as soon as they can. But, if, for whatever reason, they haven’t told you and some time has passed, they still should feel alright about coming to you with the information. Let them know: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO TELL.
- If someone wants them to keep something secret – it’s probably wrong! “Surprise” parties are only briefly kept secret, and are only kept from one person, and known to the rest of the group involved. Overall, it’s probably best to draw the line at “no secrets” for the younger ones, but a teenager will understand the difference between not spoiling the surprise for Aunt Martha’s 80th birthday and “Don’t you tell anyone about this.”
- While it’s always a good idea to make sure your child has their contact information, including their full name, home phone number, and street address – even city, state and postal code – in case of emergency, they should be cautioned not to give out any personal information without your permission – and NEVER on the Internet!
- Adults aren’t always right – even parents can be wrong! We all make mistakes, and your child might, just by luck, have more information about a given situation, even seeing something you missed. If they feel they need to tell you something important, give them a code phrase they can use to get your attention if what they need to tell you is urgent.
- Teach your child good online safety – and follow it yourself! Here are a few suggestions that we can all follow, regardless of age:
- when someone you don’t know sends you a friend request, and claims to be a “friend of a friend,” contact the friend who they claim to be friends with – and find out just how well they know that person.
- never send pictures or personal data online.
- never agree to meet someone you only know from the Internet.
- never post anything you would be ashamed for dear old Aunt Martha to see. If you don’t post anything embarrassing, it won’t come back to haunt you!
- don’t be swayed by promises – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
Where to Go for Help
Fortunately, there are many national and international organizations dedicated to the prevention, detection, and curtailing of childhood sexual abuse. Even – and especially if – you are in a group where the leadership is urging you to take care of the matter internally, it is your right as a parent to protect your child – and your child’s right to be protected from – sexual abuse. Here is a selection of the top organizations in the field:
For help in US, you can visit Childhelp USA, or call: 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
You can also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or call them at 1(800) THE-LOST.
For general advice, resources, and support, the Megan’s Law Crime Victims Center operates a well-stocked database of information.
In the UK, Childline operates a national resource for children and parents, and can be reached by telephone at: 0800 1111. Childline also operates in several other nations worldwide: check your own web browser for listings.
Finally, the Virtual Global Task Force targets and hunts predators worldwide, bringing thousands to justice who might otherwise have escaped detection and continued their abuse.
Ultimately, victims of pedophiles are forced, not only into a sexual relationship before they are ready, but also into a social relationship in which they can never be anything but an object to be abused. Children who have been sexually abused are left bewildered, unaware that what has happened was not their fault, or that it was actually deliberate abuse. Sexual abuse, until properly examined with a skillful, certified therapist, might be classified by the victim as consensual – even remembered years later as an actual, romantic relationship. This is made more difficult, because they may have felt pleasure at some time during the abuse, so feel ashamed, as if they had consented. While some children experiment sexually with each other – and everyone has seen, if not experienced, the phenomenon of “puppy love,” a child cannot and should not be seen as able to give consent to sexual contact with an adult – no matter what the predator has convinced the victim to think, this so-called “relationship” would not exist without some form of manipulative, unethical, coercive persuasion taking place to groom the child into such a liaison.
The last decade has seen many scandals concerning the abuse of children. These awful situations – in children’s homes, religious organizations, sports groups and children’s clubs – were all perpetuated because people turned a blind eye or were unwilling to take allegations seriously. Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison after 150 of his victims testified against him. The Australian Royal Commission unearthed 8000 cases of abuse by 500 Catholic priests. This abuse was facilitated by those who ignored them. We need to be more vigilant and to bring to justice not only those who have committed abuse, but those who have allowed it to happen.