Right now, parents are being inundated with a modern-day “Stranger Danger” as they are warned with article after article about online predators. While these online predators are just as much of a danger as the strange man watching children play in a park, it still holds true that the adults known to children are more of a risk to them than the strangers on the internet you’ve been warning them about.
To help you be aware of potential grooming of your children and what you can do to stop it, here are 10 indicators of grooming behavior and ways to protect your children from them. While many of these indicators are not nefarious on their own, it is important to be aware of them and note the presence of multiple indicators as a red flag.
This person makes my child feel special or seems very interested in my child.
Someone seeking to groom a child knows just what the child needs to hear. They will spend time with the child, make themselves available for the child whenever possible, and put themselves in a position of support for the child. They will tell the child they are special, that they matter to them, and even that they love them.
Prevention: Teach your child about grooming behaviors. Describe to them in an age-appropriate way what it looks like if someone is being too nice or friendly. If you suspect someone is grooming your child, make sure you do not use this person as an example of inappropriate behavior. This will cause the child to be defensive. Let the child make the connection on their own. (This does not mean allowing the relationship to continue.)
This person regularly buys gifts for my child.
Groomers will attempt to “buy” the child’s affection. In children that do not have all their needs met, this can look like them meeting those needs. For children who do have their needs met, this could be the groomer getting an expensive gift for the child that you have not gotten them. Groomers use this to drive a wedge between you and your child.
Prevention: Teach your child to tell you about gifts they receive, regardless of what they are or who they are from. This allows you to establish a pattern if an adult is buying your child a lot of gifts. It also allows you to notice if your child has received a gift and not told you where it is from.
This person touches my child in innocent ways.
This behavior is specifically meant to normalize them touching your child. They will do so in public, in front of other adults, even in front of you. This normalizes the physical affection for your child. These touches are generally not possessive or sexual, but look more like hugs, hand holding, putting their hand on the child’s shoulder, etc.
Prevention: Teach body safety and autonomy early. Make it a regular part of conversation. Teaching your child that they have the ability to say “no” to touch helps them understand if an adult is violating their no. When a child learns to say no to touch, it is important that you back them up. For example, if the child does not want a kiss from their aunt, they are allowed to say no and you do not make them get a kiss. But if the doctor needs to give them a shot and they say no, you explain to them the doctor’s job and how that kind of touch is okay, necessary, and something they need to comply with.
This person seems to have a lot in common with my child.
The groomer will listen to the child talk about their interests at length. They may even research the topic and pretend it is something they are interested in, too. This may also be reflected in gifts they buy for the child. If your teenage daughter loves fashion, they may buy her a designer purse, whereas if your young daughter loves dinosaurs, they may buy her a dinosaur book.
Prevention: Take an interest in your child’s interests. They want your validation. They want your approval. Giving them that reduces the risk of them searching for that elsewhere.
This person is my child’s best friend.
This is a particular red flag when there is a large age gap. It is inappropriate for a 10 year old’s best friend to be 15 in the same way it is inappropriate for a 15 year old’s best friend to be 25. Be mindful of the power dynamic between your child and who they consider to be their friends.
Prevention: Teach your child to identify red flags. Power dynamics are one of them. An educated child is an empowered child.
This person is regularly alone with my child.
The groomer will put themselves in a position to be alone with your child long before they do anything inappropriate. This normalizes the alone time for both you and your child. Your child will see the trust you’ve established with the groomer to allow them to be alone with them and they will mirror your trust.
Prevention: Teach your child to tell you when they are alone with adults, including adults you have previously let them be alone with. This will give you insight on if the adult is spending more time alone with your child than you were previously aware of. Unfortunately, a groomer is usually not a stranger.
This person is always ready to lend an ear to my child.
Groomers seek out children who need to be heard. This can include children going through a rough time or children who are just struggling to communicate with the adults in their life. They will listen to the child, and likely tell them exactly what they want to hear.
Prevention: Teach your child they can talk to you, without getting in trouble and without having their feelings minimized. Be open and allow them to choose other trusted adults to talk to if they’re struggling to talk to you about something, this includes allowing them to speak with a therapist if they feel they need to.
This person says or shares inappropriate things with my child.
This is one of the blatant red flags when it comes to grooming behavior. This sexualized behavior normalizes sex acts for children. This indicator does not need any additional indicators and should be acted upon immediately.
Prevention: Teach your child boundaries. This includes teaching your child when and how to say no; “good touch, bad touch, confusing touch” language, and secret vs. surprise. Age-appropriate, open, and honest communication about this topic can empower a child to seek help if they are ever in this situation.
This person offers to babysit my child.
Groomers do not always just groom the child. They also groom the parents. This offer not only allows them alone time with the child, it also is a means of relationship-building between you and the groomer. They must earn your trust as much as your child’s.
Prevention: Trust, but verify, and teach your child to do the same. For an adult, this looks like really getting to know who is watching your children. This could include background checks, references, and even trusting your gut. For your child, it looks like taking steps to verify they are who they say they are and reaching out to a trusted adult if they feel worried or confused.
This person has an online relationship with my child.
It is much easier for a groomer to hide nefarious behavior behind a screen. They are not physically present to give you an off feeling or present any red flags. It is easy to lie about who and where they are.
Prevention: Keep chat apps age-appropriate, and know which ones are never appropriate for a minor.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your children. Children who know the dangers are more likely to identify them in their own lives and reach out for help.
If your child is trying to tell you something but seems to be having a hard time, this is a hint! It feels big to them, and there’s a good chance they’re worried it won’t be big to you or that they’ll be in trouble. Ask them if it feels big to them, if it’s hard to say, or if they don’t know how to say it. Be patient, gentle, and compassionate.
If your child does disclose they have been groomed or abused, or that they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation, don’t freak out! It is easy for a child to misconstrue your panic as anger or disappointment. Your child needs you to remain calm and offer them your support.