Predators use manipulation in order to gain the trust of their targets. These manipulation tactics are globally known as grooming behaviors. Grooming behaviors are designed to make the target of the abuse feel “special”, build trust, and have access to the target fairly easily. Most people who sexually abuse children, use children that they know all ready. This often includes family members, family friends, other children, and people like coaches or religious figures. These folks tend to all ready be embeded in the family system, which makes the grooming a lot easier. But there are other predators who start out as strangers to your child and also to you. They come in through the internet and unfortunately with Covid-19 making more of us have to do things online, online sexual predators are taking advantage of this to find more targets.
I know that with Covid-19 requiring social distance and schools being closed that parents are overwhelmed with trying to balance it all. Unfortunately, abusers are taking advantage of this overwhelm and becoming more sophisticated in their grooming tactics. This is why it’s even more important that we stay vigilant in protecting our children and teens from online sexual predators.
What Exactly is Grooming Behaviors?
Grooming behaviors are behaviors that sexual predators use to gain access to their targets. These behaviors frequently start off in an innocent way (at least they seem innocent, the reality is the predator is very skilled at manipulation). The sexual predator focuses on getting to know the child or teen online. They are friendly and initially don’t raise any red flags. They ask questions and share personal details in a way that seems like the two will be connected. The reality is that the predator is assessing for the child’s vulnerabilities. The questions asked are designed for the predator to gather information about the child or teen, and what the abuser is trying to ascertain is the targets desire for connection. Basically they are playing off the targets vulnerabilities.
How Grooming Works
The goal the sexual predator has when using grooming behaviors is to get what they need from their target and to continue having them readily available, easily and without intervention. So the first stage is all about relationship building. As stated before the goal is to get to learn what the child or teens vulnerabilities are, and to use these vulnerabilities to make the child or teen feel special.
During this relationship building phase the child might not notice anything “wrong”. The predator will seem friendly and they are not overtly talking about anything sexual, in this first stage. The goal is really to build the relationship and they do this slowly.
The second Phase is where the abuser begins to increase access to the target. As the “relationship” progresses the abuser increases contact with the target. They might talk for long periods at one sitting or have more frequent talks during the week. During this time things are usually not amiss and the child or teen most likely won’t have any strange feelings or feel like something is off. In fact they might feel trust and connection with the abuser during this time.
The Third Phase is where the predator starts to introduce sexual materials. Again they are moving slow. They play off the child or teens natural curiosity and invite questions. They may also ask questions. These questions are designed to A) see exactly where the child is at in their curiosity and B) see how open the child is to talking/exploring sex. Based on the child or teens reactions to certain questions or statements the predator will push upon their targets boundaries. As things progress the predator will begin to be more overt, asking the child or teen if they want to see parts of their body, asking the child or teen to show parts of their body off, and they might even have the target bring in a peer and have the two exploring together. In more extreme cases the child or teen will meet with the predator and now we move into human trafficking and prostitution territory.
The final phase is maintaining the secrecy and maintaining access. This is where the predator moves from being nice and friendly to more overtly threatening and coersive. They will play on the child’s shame and guilt (along with fear) to keep the target going along with the sexual acts. The actual sex acts tend to increase in severity until some outside force stops it (usually through the child disclosing, but at other times the child or teen stops it on their own).
I know that this can be frightening and scary but it’s important that we as adults understand how these predators act so we know how to defend.
3 Ways You Can Protect Your Child or Teen From Online Sexual Predators
Sexual predators are taking advantage of children and teens being home more often to coerce them, therefore it’s even more important as adults to protect our children and teens online.
1. Communicate: This starts early with your child but the goal is to have open communication between you and your child or teen. You want to teach them the names of their body parts, consent, what is their boundary around touching, how to listen to their bodies (when they feel afraid or something doesn’t feel right), and what they can do about it (come to you for help). Establish yourself as a safe and trusted person for your child or teen.
2. Normalize Curiosity: All kids are curious about their bodies and sexuality, you want to normalize this. Your goal here is to help your child and teen learn their boundaries. Help them feel ok with their boundaries and to learn about all the amazing things tat their bodies can do. When talking about sex talk about it as an adult activity not something kids should do and never between kids and adults. It’s ok for them to be curious and to ask questions or look for answers but that adults who are not good will take advantage of this. Therefore it’s important to establish who they can to about their bodies and sex as well as appropriate resources that they can use if they have information.
3. Safe Guard: Setting up boundaries that are both physical and mental. The physical boundaries of website access and safety searches and the mental boundaries around helping your child learn the importance of setting and maintaining their own boundaries about what is and isn’t ok. Set firm guidelines and rules around the internet. If your home has a no social media rule then talk with your child about why this is and why it’s important that your child respects it. Have clear rules around what happens if they break this rule but don’t be naive as well. Assume your child might be on them and continue having talks with them about being safe online and how they can come to you if there is a problem.
Child predators use grooming behaviors just like all other sexual abusers, the only difference is that they use more elaborate means to coerce their targets and will often sexually abuse for profit (human trafficking and/or amateur porn sites). This is why it’s even more important that we stay vigilant in protecting our children and teens from these predators.
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