Grooming usually begins with subtle behaviours that do not appear to be inappropriate, and that may in fact suggest that the individual is very good with children. Many victims/survivors of sexual abuse do not recognize the grooming process as it is happening, nor do they recognize that this process of manipulation is part of the overall abuse process.

In the grooming process, the offender:

  • Begins by gaining the trust of adults around the child. The offender establishes a friendship and gains the child’s trust.
  • Moves to testing the child’s boundaries (and the child’s ability to protect him/herself) through the telling of sexual jokes, engaging in roughhousing, backrubs, sexual games, telling her/him that s/he looks good or ‘hot’ in an inappropriate manner, etc.
  • Progresses from non-sexual touching to ‘accidental’ sexual touching (which usually occurs during play). The child may not identify this as purposeful, inappropriate touching.
  • Confuses the child into feeling as if s/he is equally responsible for the contact. Most children do not even realize that the contact has changed; they may not notice or may simply become confused by the contact as it begins to cross boundaries and becomes sexual. This may progress to increasingly invasive touching or abuse.
  • Becomes more involved in the child’s family or home life so that s/he can build trust with others involved in the child’s life.
  • Discourages and prevents the child from telling anyone about what is happening, as s/he feels complicit to the abuse.
  • Makes the child feel obligated to (and, at times, protective of) the offender.
  • Engages the child in unnecessary physical contact such as unwarranted or unnecessary physical restraint (this can increase normalization of physical contact and may satisfy the offender’s need for contact).
  • Manipulates the child into becoming a cooperative participant who is unlikely to report the abuse and repeatedly returns to the offender.

“At some point the child may realize what is happening but still not want the relationship to end.”

[Kenneth Lanning, 2009]

Grooming is often a slow, gradual and escalating process of building trust and comfort with a child.