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.