Child sexual abuse is unfortunately common. According to Amy Pumo, the Director of Clinical Services at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18. That is no small number of kids. And while you don’t want to think about that happening to your kid, being aware of the signs of sexual abuse and sexual predators is deeply important. One of the most common ways that a child is sexually abused, after all, involves people the family already knows. That being said, knowing the actual signs of sexual abuse and if someone around you might be an abuser is important so you don’t fall into paranoia or general distrust of adults. Most sexual abuse cases of children involve “grooming.”
What Is Grooming?
“Grooming” is a term experts use to refer to the actions that sexual abusers take to get close to and gain the trust of those they are interested and/or that person’s family. For instance, a neighbor might volunteer to help fix your roof after a storm or babysit your child when you have an emergency and have to get out the door quick. While these seem like nice, neighborly things to do, they could be far more sinister. According to Amy Pumo, the Director of Clinical Services at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the majority of cases of sexual abuse do involve grooming. Therefore, being aware of the common signs of grooming is deeply important.
There are, largely, two different spaces in which sexual abusers groom their victims: in person and online.
The Signs Someone May Be Sexually Grooming a Child in Person
According to Camille Cooper, the VP of Public Policy of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, more than half of sexual abuse contact cases involve family members. This means that even with the closest of relatives, including grandparents, siblings, or step-parents, parents should always be on guard for suspicious or suspect behavior.
There are clear signs that grooming is taking place, and oftentimes, there is more than one sign. Parents should take account of all behavior of adults around them and recognize that there are, of course, many more pieces to this puzzle. Just because an uncle likes to play video games with your son doesn’t mean abuse is happening. But there are patterns of behavior that parents can be on guard for — here are some signs that someone maybe grooming your child for abuse.
They Become Useful to the Family
One way abusers work to gain the trust of the family of the child they are targeting is by making their lives easier. “They befriend the child, the family, and other adults in the child’s life,” says Pumo. “They’ll provide the child and family members with opportunities, privilege, emotional support, financial support. It could just be attention in a two-family home when both parents are working a lot of hours. It could be taking your kid to practice and saving you time.” No, this doesn’t mean that every time someone offers to do you a favor have nefarious intent. But it is a common sign of abuse to be wary of and note.
They Want to Be Alone With Your Child
Most adult men, per Cooper, rarely want to be alone with children who aren’t theirs. “I always tell parents: if any adult male wants to be alone with your children, that’s a red flag. Most normal adult men want to be alone with other adult men or adult women.” She adds that if there’s an adult man in your life who exclusively wants to be alone with your kid, to take them to a movie alone or to the basement to play video games, that might also be a red flag.
They Consistently Prefer The Company of Children
While being good with kids and playing with them at a family dinner is no big deal, Pumo says a warning sign that grooming might be taking place or that someone you are around could be an abuser is if they almost exclusively prefer the company of children. “It could be an adult who you notice consistently prefers the company of children, or a particular child over same-aged peers and other adults,” she says. “At a party, is this adult always just with the kids?”
They Share Secrets With Your Child or Ask Your Child to Keep Secrets
One way abusers try to gain a child’s trust is through secrets. Maybe it’s a letter filled with jokes that the person tells a child is just between them. Maybe it’s more personal. In any case, secrets can work to infiltrate a child’s world and, later, intimidate them.
Of course, secrets can simply be used to cover up other acts. “It doesn’t even have to be about abuse,” says Pumo. “Say you find out that an uncle was at the game, but you didn’t know he was going to be there. Or that your brother picked your child up after practice and didn’t tell you he was going to, and you thought he was walking home with his friends.”
They Have Contact With Your Children When You Are Not Present
Another big warning sign that an adult has intentions to abuse your child is if they contact them when you are not around. This could mean phone calls, yes, but also text messages, emails, or other social media platforms, says Pumo.
They Are Extremely Interested In Your Child’s Romantic Life
While any adult figure might be curious about whether or not your child is dating, real and serious concern about your child’s romantic life could be a sign of grooming or intent to groom. Being overprotective of a child’s dating life — such as not letting her date, not letting her go to parties or places that certain types of harm will be done, or anything above and beyond what might be considered appropriate — is a dynamic of abuse, says Pumo. She adds that taking a special interest in a child’s sexual development, or expressing a need to know if they have a boyfriend are also warning signs.
They Ignore Your Boundaries
Most parents have normal boundaries for their children in the company of adults. Most adults respect those boundaries. Those who consistently attempt to cross the line — maybe they go directly to them for a hug when they enter the home — might be trying to see what you pick up on — and if you’ll stop them from continuing that behavior.
They Buy Your Child Gifts
“If anyone comes bearing gifts and your kid says ‘Look what so-and-so got me,’ and it’s a really nice toy or a gadget or something the kid really wanted, watch out,” says Cooper. “That’s part of the grooming process.” This is especially true if these are the gifts that aren’t aligned with gift-giving holidays like Christmas or birthdays.
Their Home Is Filled With Children’s Toys
Abusers of children often fill their home with stuffed animals and video game consoles that children might like to play with rather than things that align with more adult interests, says Cooper. She says concerns should be raised about a person in the neighborhood who has his house tricked out with stuffed animals, video games. “Most adult men, if they have stuff that they’ve put into their homes, it’s usually sporting goods, fishing gear, motorcycles,” she says. “It’s not going to be things that appeal to minors.”
They Touch Your Child
People who groom children for abuse tend to begin touching your child to see how far they can go before you or the child says they are uncomfortable. It could begin with tickling games and then move into massages and, ultimately, sexual abuse. “They’ll test it out slowly to make sure that this is going to work with this particular child,” says Pumo. “Once they’ve [tickled or massaged your child] a couple of times, and this is normal, and this is what you do, then you go for touching a breast or a penis. How does the child respond in the moment?” If your child doesn’t let you know, or you don’t talk to the person about that touch, the person in question will see that as a green light to continue to heighten the abuse.
The Signs Someone Might Be Sexually Grooming Your Child Online
Social media and the Internet have opened up new portals for child abuse. Signs of sexual grooming online are harder to spot, because they aren’t out in the open. But parents of children who are using platforms, both Cooper and Pumo stressed, need to be overseeing their activity, have access to all of their profiles, be able to look through their friends lists and messages, and make sure that their child knows everyone who they are friends with online in real life. Being vigilant is key to making sure that a child doesn’t accidentally befriend someone who is lying about who they are to harm your child.
“This idea that just because a child has a device entitles them to adult privacy is really sort of naive and misapplied,” says Cooper. “You don’t just give a kid a set of keys to a car and let them drive on the road. This is what parenting is about: protecting your kids and making sure they’re safe.”
That said, here are some warning signs parents should watch out for.
They Frequently Talk to “Friends of Friends”
On many gaming platforms and social media websites, kids can add friends who can see their profile or game with them and vice versa. It’s important that kids don’t add anyone they do not know in real life, says Cooper. Per her example: “I remember with my own step-son, when he was younger, he’d say ‘I friended all these people on this game that I’m playing. They’re my friends.’ My husband would say, ‘How do you know they’re your friends? He’d say, ‘because they’re friends with my friends.’ To my step son, in his mind, that was the logical sort of line to draw, that if his friends knew him for sure they were okay,” says Cooper.
Abusers, he adds, will often try to get on the friends lists of children in order to have more authority or to be more ‘trusted’ when they start to look for other young kids to talk to on the Internet.
Your Child Is Friends With An Adult
While most of the time, those who groom children take on fake identities to more easily gain a child’s trust, some abusers will be open about who they are. If you see any adults on your child’s friends list — and these can even be adults that you know — delete them or block them. There is no reason an adult needs to be friends with your child online, says Cooper.
Your Child Is Friends With Unreasonably Hot Women
Although modern children are digitally native, Cooper stresses that they are still very naive, and if an attractive woman adds them, they likely won’t think too critically about it.
“If you have an offender that wants to target young boys, they’ll put up a profile of a very attractive college-aged girl and then start talking to those boys and soliciting pictures and stuff like that,” warns Cooper. Young teenage boys will not think too hard about the fact that a hot 19-year-old college-aged woman is interested in them.
Your Child Is Friends With An Age-Appropriate Person They’ve Never Met
It isn’t odd these days for kids to meet others from all corners of the world, whether playing games online or other such avenues. But, Cooper warns that another common way that abusers attempt to gain the trust of a child is by posing as an age-appropriate friend of the opposite sex,
“Some offenders will pretend they are a girl that is the same age as a person they’re targeting online,” she says. These offenders are very patient. They’ll groom someone, and become friends with them, and empathize with them, and be there for them when they get into a fight with their parents and they want to complain about how hard school is. They always have the right thing to say,” says Cooper.
This type of online grooming mimics that of in-person grooming: The abuser is working to gain your child’s trust until they can solicit pictures or attempt to meet them in real life.
How too Talk to Your Kids About Boundaries to Prevent Sexual Abuse
Luckily, parents can begin conversations about physical boundaries very early on in an age appropriate manner that can help prevent abuse. However, even the most smart children can be groomed. Not only should you have conversations about appropriate and inappropriate touch and get down to brass tacks about body parts, but you should also cast yourself as an adult who always listens to kids when something might be wrong.
Have Conversations About Appropriate and Inappropriate Touch
Getting real about what is inappropriate or appropriate should start very early on. There’s no reason to wait on this, and it can be done in an age appropriate manner. Parents need to tell their young children that it is never okay for anyone to touch their private parts and that if someone does, they need to tell their parents right away, says Cooper. Parents of older kids can get into real conversations about sexual abuse and grooming. The conversation should be had consistently, and evolve over time.
Teach Them Clinical Terms For Body Parts
Kids need to be as comfortable saying penis or vagina as they are saying elbow, knee, or toe, stressed Pumo. “It’s about creating a culture in the home where there isn’t shame or stigma around talking about these parts of the body,” she says. That way, if children are being touched in those areas, they can clearly state that they are without using euphemisms or not knowing how to describe the nature of the abuse.
Don’t Force Your Kid to Hug Anyone
Hugs are good for your kid. They’re known to decrease anxiety while promoting a deeper sense of well-being and safety. The last thing parents want to do is limit this kind of physical affection. However, it’s essential for you to put your kid in control of hugging, to give them the power of consent. Allowing your kid to control the level of intimacy they’re okay with is tremendously empowering — and crucial to helping them govern their bodies. Forcing a child to hug a relative when they don’t want to teaches a kid not to trust their own intuition. “That’s a predator’s dream,” says Cooper.
Tell Them There Are Good Secrets and Bad Secrets
People who groom children for abuse often make them engage in keeping secrets from their parents or the people around them. In order to inure kids against that type of manipulation, per Cooper, parents need to tell their kids that there are good secrets and bad secrets.
“The good secrets are the types of secrets you can tell very soon, like, ‘I got a present for mommy for her birthday and she will find out on Friday.’ That’s a secret you can tell very soon. The kind of secrets you can never tell are always bad secrets — and you must always tell them because they are always bad.” Small children can easily understand this concept. Plus, the worst case scenario is that your kid accidentally tells you what they got you for your birthday. That’s not so bad, is it?
Exert Your Own Boundaries Over Your Body to Prove A Point
An easy way to teach kids not to violate the boundaries of others, and therefore that they also have boundaries that shouldn’t be violated, is to exert your own, per Pumo. “If my daughter is climbing on me I say to her: ’This doesn’t feel good to my body, I’m asking you to stop. It’s important that you listen to me, because I have a right to be comfortable in my own body.’ These are circumstances that regularly present themselves, and for parents, they can easy become teachable moments.
Always Listen to Your Child
The RAINN hotline receives a lot of calls from children suffering abuse, many of whom tried to bring it up with a parent or guardian first. ”The majority of people express that the first time they disclosed abuse to someone, they got a very negative reaction and were shut down,” says Cooper. Don’t let this be the case. Children need to know that they can talk to their parents. And when a child raises concerns about something involving an adult friend, relative, neighbor, or other acquaintance, you need to listen to them. You need to tell them they did the right thing by coming to you and that you’ll take this matter seriously. You need to tell them it’s not their fault.
What Parents Can Do When They Suspect Child Grooming or Sexual Abuse Might Be Happening
Set Strict Limits
If you haven’t seen any abuse happening, but are uncomfortable with the way an adult talks to your child, it’s important to set limits with them from the outset.
Pumo shared an example. Her daughter was in summer camp last year. There was a male camp counselor and she saw them engaging in a tickling game. “I’m sure it was quite innocent, but I wanted to be really clear with him that there are no tickling games between counselors and children, male or female,” she explains. “I said to him, ‘I appreciate that you’re trying to have fun with my daughter but I really would like you to help me. I’m trying to teach her about appropriate body boundaries and I don’t want her to engage in tickling games. Can you help me by not doing that with her? I’ll talk with her about it as well.”
That way, you can bring up the issue without outright accusing a counselor of being inappropriate. But you’re also giving them a clear sign that you are paying attention.
Do Not Talk To The Abuser
If your child tells you they have been abused, the last thing you should do is confront the abuser, both Pumo and Cooper. That could get in the way of any future investigations into the abuse and make it harder for that person to be convicted.
Alert the Authorities
Immediately call the authorities as soon as your child tells you what happens. If you suspect that abuse is happening in a family that you know, look up hotlines in your state to report your concerns to.