I Thought I Could Trust Him: Learn the Signs of Grooming and Manipulation
Last week, MPR reported on the dozens of survivors who have come forward alleging sexual abuse by at least 20 employees at the Children’s Theatre Company from 1980 through 1990. Though this case is shocking in its duration and magnitude of victims affected, the experience CTC survivors have reported is common amongst many survivors of child sexual abuse.
Last year in Hennepin County alone, there were 8,000 reported and screened child abuse cases. At CornerHouse, we provided intervention, stabilization, and healing services for over 500 of these children and families affected by abuse. The demand for our services far exceeds our current capacity.
We know that the best way to combat abuse is to prevent it from happening. In an effort to shed light on how abuse happens, and what to look for, CornerHouse staff examined the grooming practices perpetrators use to manipulate victims and their caregivers.
What is grooming?
Grooming is when someone takes deliberate action to select and build an emotional connection with a child/teen, and often their family, to engage the child/teen in sexual abuse and/or exploitation, as well as maintain the abusive relationship in secrecy.
Befriending, gaining trust
- Perpetrators may be overly-friendly toward a child and find ways to establish trust – playing with them, volunteering to babysit, and relate to them as a way to create a façade of a peer-to-peer relationship
- Perpetrators often test children’s boundaries to assess their comfort levels and try desensitize the child/teen through incremental violation of their boundaries. This tells them what they could get away with, and blurs the lines of appropriate and inappropriate behavior between adults and children. Boundary violations can be things like unwanted hugs, kisses, or tickling, “accidental” sexual touching, sexual jokes or comments directed at a child/teen, walking in when a child/teen is bathing or changing, or showing a child/teen pornography.
- A perpetrator finds ways to be alone with a child that will give them opportunities to test boundaries and ultimately abuse the victim.
- This behavior can occur within athletic teams, music, or dance groups when an adult has unlimited access to youth and multiple ways to communicate in person, online, or via phone.
Getting gifts or special privileges
- Perpetrators may buy victims a toy they want, allow them to do a special activity, tell victims that they are special and important, or they can do anything they want when they are together.
Displaying common interests
- This is more common with adolescent abuse. A perpetrator may try to relate with a victim by showing interest in things they like, which helps the adolescent feel more understood.
Filling a need for attention and affection
- If a child or adolescent is not getting the necessary attention from their caregivers, a perpetrator may use this an opportunity to fill these needs, subsequently becoming closer with the child.
Threats and Intimidation
- A perpetrator may threaten to hurt a family member or pet in order to gain compliance, or cause the victim to believe they are to blame for their own abuse
Grooming the caregiver
- While some may lay blame on the parents, our experience indicates that parents and caregivers become secondary victims themselves. Perpetrators groom caregivers to get more access to a child, and a lower likelihood that a child’s accusations will be believed.
- Perpetrators may groom caregivers by befriending them, offering resources (financial, housing, etc.)
- Offering to babysit or inviting the child over for sleepovers
- Working to gain trust of caregivers and family as a whole
What should you do if you see grooming behaviors?
Listen to your gut and speak up. It should not be solely the child/teen’s responsibility to set boundaries for themselves. If you see someone making a child/teen uncomfortable, or if a child/teen tells you that someone has made them feel uncomfortable, set a boundary for the child/teen with that person:
- Name the behavior that is making you and/or the child/teen uncomfortable;
- Ask the person to stop the behavior;
- Remove yourself and the child/teen from the situation.
- Report any suspected abuse to your local law enforcement or child protection agency.
Visit our website for more caregiver resources, or to help CornerHouse serve more children by donating or volunteering.