Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are not those scary men who lurk around playgrounds looking for opportunities. In fact, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 90% of children who are sexually abused know their perpetrator.
Perpetrators of sexual abuse are anywhere and everywhere. They are charismatic everyday people who earn the trust of others. They could be a staff member at your child’s school; they could be your child’s coach or music instructor; they could be at your church; they could be the nanny; they could be your very own family member.
The truth is that sexual perpetrators look and act like any other “normal” person. It can be difficult to pick them out.
However, there are things that almost all perpetrators have in common: they often use certain behaviors to groom a child for abuse. These behaviors are methodical, subtle, gradual, and escalating (meaning they intensify as time goes by). We typically refer to these as grooming behaviors.
While this might be frightening to think about, knowing these grooming patterns will help you to know how to identify grooming behavior, strengthen your parenting intuition, and help significantly lower the risk of your child being sexually abused and recognize signs of grooming behavior.
Six common grooming behaviors that every parent needs to know:
Perpetrators seek to form relationships with children. They usually spend their spare time with children and tend to be more interested in forming relationships with children than adults.
They will single out one child as “special” and give him or her extra attention and gifts as a way to form a bond between them. They will take a special interest in a child’s look and dress and may take excessive pictures of the child.
Perpetrators will try to test the boundaries of your child’s comfort levels. Sometimes they will tell off-colored or sexualized jokes to see how the child will respond. They may try to play sexualized games such as pants-ing, truth-or-dare, or strip games.
They will see how the child reacts when they enter a child’s room or normal places where children are expected to have privacy, such as the restroom.
Perpetrators thrive in secrecy, and testing boundaries helps them know if they can continue without being caught.
Perpetrators will test the boundaries of touch with your child. They usually begin with non-sexual touches such as high-fives and hugging. They may slowly progress to inappropriate touching such as accidentally grazing a private part of the body, just to see how the child will react. They may kiss or have the child sit on their lap.
The thing to note is they will move from very innocent touching and progress to more sexual touching in order to test the reaction of the child.
Perpetrators use intimidation in order to keep the child from telling another person about the abuse. They will begin by testing the child’s reaction to being blamed for something simple. They will see if the child pushes back or tells an adult. Then they will progress to threatening the child or causing a child to feel a sense of guilt.
They often use fear or embarrassment to keep a child from telling another person about the abuse. They may use statements such as, “No one will believe you,” or threaten them with danger (or danger to someone they love) to keep them from telling.
SHARING SEXUALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL
Perpetrators often share sexualized material in order to normalize sex. They will use sexual terms freely in the presence of your child. They will show sexualized pictures or videos. They will often begin a sexualized relationship through messaging or texting first.
Perpetrators will look for any communication channel to communicate with a child secretly. Often these interactions begin online. They often encourage texting, emailing and all calls to be secret. Remember perpetrators thrive in secrecy, so they will always encourage the child to keep everything silent.
It is common to read these grooming behavior signs and identify people who do some of these things, but that doesn’t automatically make them a perpetrator. The goal of talking and being informed about these grooming behaviors is to strengthen your intuition and help you be on alert.
With that said, if you ever see these behaviors and feel like something is wrong, you can use a strategy we call “confronting with kindness” to help protect your child. Confronting with kindness includes only two steps:
Pull the person aside and explain the boundaries you have established
for your child and why you have them.
Ask them to support you in those boundaries.
If the individual did the behavior innocently, they will likely be very apologetic and in the future keep those boundaries. If the individual is, in fact, a perpetrator, they will be put on high alert, and it is rare that they would continue to groom your child. If perpetrators know you are watching, they will usually stop targeting your child.
The number one thing to remember is that you are responsible to stay informed, and take an active part in your child’s life.
You can do this. The simple actions you take to stay informed can be the very things that protect your child from danger.