When we are feeling lonely or insecure or vulnerable and someone comes along and pays us the right kind of attention, we turn toward them the way that a flower turns toward the sunshine.
A little flattery, a kind word, a small gift can go a very long way. When they are an adolescent, in that difficult post-childhood, pre-adult emotional zone, there is a firestorm of emotions that include, but are not limited to, desire to be independent, fearlessness, and assurance that they are insightful beyond parental reason.
In other words, adolescents have the firm belief that they know what is best and who is good for them. They can make their own friends and they have weathered the pitfalls of friends who betray and drop them over imaginary slights.
Underneath all this bravado and belief in their infallibility, there is often a curiosity and sense of loneliness as they cannot fit into their childhood ways and they are not self-supporting enough to be the adult that they know they should be.
Add to this personality mix the pervasiveness of the online world and the desire to feel special and you have a perfect situation for grooming.
Grooming refers to the way that an adult will create an emotional connection with a child with unacceptable goals in mind – not always extreme but we’ll look at worse case scenarios. The adult wants to have the young person trust them and turn their full allegiance to them so
that the child will follow them into forbidden territory. The forbidden territory can be sexual abuse for the perpetrator’s own gratification. It can be sexual exploitation or human trafficking.
How does the groomer carry out this nefarious behaviour? First, the groomer needs to gain access to the child and slowly build a level of trust and a feeling that they have a special connection. The groomer needs to make the child become compliant and build a relationship with the child that encourages the child to keep everything between them a secret. The child may not feel that they are being abused but that they are in a very special relationship with the abuser. A secret, loving and special relationship that parents would never understand.
The online world is a perfect place for grooming because of the anonymity it offers. However, it is not the only place where grooming can take place. You can warn children about stranger danger and insist upon knowing all the people they meet face-to-face. That is not good enough. It’s not just strangers, online or offline, who can groom your child.
Sexual predators also exist in families, among your friends, and even in the professionals you trust because caring for children is their job. There is no one specific profile for a predator. He can be a 56-year-old secondary school coach or she can be an 18-year-old babysitter.
The predator can be that mild-mannered, helpful next door neighbour, or the young man who walks his dog past your house everyday. The woman who used to date your brother could be a predator who has a new boyfriend she wants to keep, and the price of his attention is luring children into his depraved world.
Your brother, Bob, is out of a job and moves in with you. He has no money and he offers to help you around the house. You have a 13-year-old son and think that having his uncle around will be good for him. Your son won’t be left alone to get into teenage mischief. Maybe they will go to the park and toss a ball around. It will get your son away from his video games.
Uncle Bob spends time with his nephew and builds up a camaraderie. Bob shares family stories with his nephew and praises him for his ball throwing ability. Bob sees the family dynamics and knows where the child’s tender emotional points are. Bob uses these triggers to create a connection where the child feels that, at last, an adult sees his point of view.
Once this connection is made, Bob drives the wedge in a little deeper. “You are so grown up,” he will say. “I can’t believe that your parents treat you like a child. A baby.” This is music to the young boy’s ears.
Bob will produce a beer and they will share the beer while they are alone in the house and their bond will be stronger. Another beer, a couple of really raunchy jokes, and the lads, man and boy, are equals. It is not a long step from this to Uncle Bob offering to show his nephew some inappropriate attention and before long, they are in a secret sexual relationship.
The idea of us against them, the parents who don’t understand how mature the child is, has already been established. If the boy feels any shame or discomfort, he will not be inclined to tell his mother or his father.
Uncle Bob can be anyone in your circle of friends and acquaintances. The child can be any age. This happens face-to-face. When the groomer is online, he or she has ample opportunity to practice the fine art of stalking the perfect victim.
Online profiles on children’s gaming sites, even innocuous games involving cute animals, are like a catalogue where the groomer can find the exact preferential type of child that they want to seduce.
The point is that you cannot spot the paedophile or screen all the friends your child has online and know which ones are genuine and which ones are impressing your child and setting the child up for abuse.
A child is playing an online game that you have explored and determined to be a safe place for the child. You monitor the game and the amount of time that the child spends online playing this game.
The child makes friends in the game and one of the top scoring players who, according to his profile is not much older than the child – maybe a year older – begins to show up and plays regularly with your child. Small bits of praise are directed at your child’s ability to score and over time, they build a friendship using the monitored chat space.
It looks innocent enough. The other player has a profile that is full of details about his school and his family and his friends. There are photos of the older child doing regular children’s things. If you see their interaction online, it might not seem to be a problem.
In reality, the other player is a man in his 30s who preys on young boys and eventually he will suggest that they meet offline. The suggestion will be based on information he has learned through the innocent chats with the child right under your nose.
The groomer will have learned the times when the child is most apt to be available to meet at the shopping centre or a school. It is a skill perfected by diligent observation. Perhaps it can be a time when you go grocery shopping and the child will be with you but able to ask permission to look at the toy section or the book section of the store.
A previous arrangement will have been made for the groomer to meet the child. The predator will show up, looking quite serious and say that he is the father or brother of the online friend, and was sent to find your child because the online friend cannot get to meet him at the store because he is running late.
The father figure will engage the child in non-threatening talk and then suggest that they step outside the store so that the friend will be able to see them sooner. The predator may then admit that he was the friend from the game after all and he didn’t want to frighten the boy off by telling him that right away.
He could build trust with the child at this point by flattering the child, engaging him in secrecy, and arrange another meeting when they have more time.
When you are a foster parent, there is the possibility of even more danger. For one thing, the child may have learned distrust and feel isolated because of the unsettled history they have had. They need time to trust their foster family and in the meantime, having someone devoted to talking to them, making them feel special, praising them, and being available to make them feel that someone cares about them above all others, would obviously be very attractive to them.
If the foster child is new to your household, it is likely that you will not be as attuned to changes in their personality as you might be to a child that has been with you all his or her life.
Groomers are clever and subtle and they know how to stay under the spotlight as they engage with your children. They have had the time to develop an online persona that protects them from being spotted by knowing adults. If they are offline people, they will have worked their grooming techniques on you as well so that you have learned to trust them.
You have to be vigilant and watch for changes in the young person’s behaviour. This can be challenging when they are teenagers because it is part of the way teenagers are that their emotions are volatile and sometimes flamboyant. And secretive. Lot’s of teenagers like to shut themselves away and have mysterious online connections.
However, there are some obvious signals that should be checked upon. If they are suddenly sporting new clothes or a fancy smart phone, find out where they obtained these things. They are the type of gifts that often accompany grooming.
Know their friends and be curious about friends who are age inappropriate.
Keep an eye on drug and alcohol usage. Where are they getting the drugs or the drink?
These are obvious external signs that they might be getting involved in a dangerous relationship. There are also emotional clues that something might be going wrong. Again, because teenagers do have trouble with their raging hormones and emerging adult emotions that challenge their moods, this is a delicate issue to sort out.
Has your child suddenly become depressed, withdrawn, and anxious? Are they having trouble sleeping? Do they have nightmares or wet the bed? What about eating disorders? Has their behaviour taken a turn for the worse? Are they skipping school or showing an abnormal interest in self-harm or suicide? Or to the other extreme, are they inexplicably happy?
When you are fostering a young person, some of these signs might be the result of the chaos that has been in the child’s life to this point. Mood swings, negative attitudes, and withdrawal from the family may have nothing to do with a predator or it may have everything to do with a predator.
Nevertheless you must be vigilant.
Remember that groomers can be part of your regular circle of friends. They can be people you would never suspect of being any danger at all. One predator who is disabled, used that to his advantage and went so far as to groom the parents, building up a level of trust that had the parents get their children involved in helping out the person who became their abuser.
A family acquaintance who is grooming your child may do things that bridge the gap between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, by doing things right in front of you that sends a signal to the child that it is all right for the person to touch them.
Here is an example: the predator might hug the child in front of you in a casual form of greeting. This sends the signal that the person’s touch is all right with you. When the hug becomes more intense, the stage has already been set. Be observant of how your child responds to being hugged by a family friend or relative.
Communication is the best weapon against children in your care being the target of a grooming approach. Talk about how physical contact between an adult and a child is not a good thing. It is one thing to hug your parents. It is another thing completely to let the neighbour hug you and touch you. Acceptable levels of contact may also differ between cultures, so it’s important to discuss.
The groomer is apt to start with light touches, a pat on the shoulder or an accidental bump. The touching will become more frequent and more lingering and the young person will become immune to it being anything even remotely dangerous.
The more you can create an open atmosphere in your household, where young people can feel safe talking to you about the facts of life, the better chance you have of protecting them from predators.
Here are five tips to keep communication open: