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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Paulsen, MA, LMFT, RPT-S

Signs A Child Is Being Groomed for Sexual Abuse

“Since most sexual abuse begins well before puberty, preventive education, if it is to have any effect at all, should begin early in grade school.” ― Judith Lewis Herman, Father-Daughter Incest: With a New Afterword

April is Sexual Abuse Awareness & Child Abuse Prevention Month. With this in mind, I thought it would be important to share tips and signs to watch for regarding your children in order to help keep them safe as 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse ( When a sexual predator decides to target a specific child they will then begin the process of “grooming”. Grooming is when an adult predator befriends a child, and sometimes their family, to lower inhibitions that abuse would occur. Think of all those times neighbors were interviewed after they found out “John Doe” next door was raping, murdering, molesting, etc. and they all say the same thing, “I never thought he would do something like that.” Well there is a reason for that. Sexual predators have to appear normal in order for you to let them get close to your child. If they appear “creepy” they know you would not let them get close enough to your child for the abuse to occur. Be cautious!

Grooming typically occurs in the following 6 stages:

Stage 1: Targeting the Victim – A predator will usually choose a “vulnerable” child. A child whose parents are gone a lot or are going through a divorce or a child who is bullied frequently or has low self-esteem are all possible reasons someone would be targeted. Less parental oversight = easier target and more desirable victim.

Stage 2: Gain the Victim’s Trust – The predator will watch and gather information about the child in order to use this as ammunition and a way of making the child think they can trust them. A predator will present just like any other responsible caretaker by appearing concerned, friendly, and thoughtful. A seasoned predator knows exactly how far they can go without raising suspicion. Be mindful, what is this adult doing paying so much attention to my child anyway? “According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well (page 5),” (

Stage 3: Filling A Need – Once the predator determines the child’s vulnerability, they will use this vulnerability as an advantage. “Parents aren’t home often? Come on over to my house, I’ll take care of you!” “Getting bullied at school and have no friends? Come on over and spend time with me, I’ll be your friend!” Extravagant gifts such as video game systems, expensive clothing or shoes, or any other high dollar item that is given “just because” to one child but not another; attention; and affection are all part of filling the child’s needs.

Stage 4: Isolating the Child – Now that the predator and the child have a “special” relationship they will create opportunities to be alone with the child. This isolation further reinforces how “special” the relationship is as the child feels unique that this adult would want to spend time with or “babysit” them but not their siblings. In this stage, a predator may even begin to manipulate the child into believing that they (the predator) cares for the child in a way their parents don’t and may even make the child believe that their parents don’t love them as much as the predator does. Parents may sometimes perceive this relationship as feeling grateful that their child has someone to mentor them and someone their child can look up to.

Stage 5: Sexualizing the Relationship – ONLY after the predator feels the child is not only trusting of the adult but dependent on them will they begin to pursue the child in a sexual way. The predator will first test the waters to gauge a child’s reaction by simply talking about sex or asking them questions. A predator may also create situations where they are both partially naked by offering to take the child swimming. “When teaching a child, the grooming sex offender has the opportunity to shape the child's sexual preferences and can manipulate what a child finds exciting and extend the relationship in this way. The child comes to see himself as a more sexual being and to define the relationship with the offender in more sexual and special terms,” (Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner).

Stage 6: Maintaining Control – Once the abuse begins to occur, the predator will make sure it stays a secret for as long as possible. This is done through blame, threats, and manipulation. Children will sometimes feel conflicted with whether or not they should tell, especially if the adult is providing something someone else can’t such as emotional support, friendship, nurturance, or material items. Many children also fear if they tell they will get in trouble or not be wanted by anyone else.

With all of this in mind, my intent was not to make every parent paranoid or suspicious of any adult in their child’s life. However, if an adult gives more attention to one of your children than the other or tries to spend a lot of time alone with one child in particular, pay attention! If your gut tells you something is wrong, something is probably wrong! Listen to your instincts.

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