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How Predators Groom Children for Sexual Exploitation

May 18th, 2021

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Grooming is “a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults, and the environment for the abuse of the child” (Craven, Brown, & Gilchrist, 2007). By definition, grooming involves the manipulation of children and the adults in a child’s life. Adults caring for children at home, in churches, or at school can be deceived to have confidence in an individual who is untrustworthy or dangerous. By knowing the stages of grooming and the possible effects it can have on a child, we can be more vigilant in both preventing exploitation and intervening in sexual misconduct.  

These “stages” may overlap, and some situations may include some elements of grooming and not others.

The process of grooming includes:

•   Identifying a vulnerable child
•   Building trust and friendship through gift giving, filling needs, and spending time
•   Isolating the child and building trust and loyalty
•   Crossing boundaries and sexualizing the relationship
•   Maintaining secrecy and making the child feel responsible
(Winters & Jelic, 2017).

One of the greatest steps we can take to prevent exploitation is to minimize the opportunities for a child to be isolated with an adult who is not their guardian. Churches, schools, daycares, afterschool programs, and any other child-serving organization should implement policies that prevent isolation - whether physically or digitally. Preventing digital isolation requires strictly followed policies for online behavior. Remember, an adult can isolate a child in a room full of people with a private message or photo. Carefully crafted and enforced policies can decrease a child’s vulnerability and eliminate potential secrecy that might result in exploitation.

Each child processes trauma differently and may have a wide range of reactions to exploitation depending on what they have experienced.

Specific characteristics that may indicate abuse include:

•   Increases in nightmares/sleeping difficulties
•   Withdrawn behavior
•   Angry outbursts
•   Anxiety 
•   Depression 
•   Fear of being left alone with a specific individual
•   Sexual knowledge, language, and/or behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age (Townsend & Reingold, 2013).

If a child tells you that they are being or have been sexually abused, it’s important to listen carefully, stay calm, and never blame the child. Refrain from making promises that you can’t control. Telling a child that a person will go to jail or that a certain behavior won’t happen again will both confuse the child and may cause unintentional trauma. Instead, tell the child, “Thank you for telling me. I’m going to call someone who can help”. 

If you suspect that a child is being or has been sexually abused, you can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-Child (or 1-800-422-4453). It is always better to report any potential exploitation so it can be investigated as quickly as possible. In an emergency, call 911 for immediate help. 

Together, we can educate communities, provide resources and promote awareness that will end sexual exploitation and human trafficking - one child at a time.