Is Someone Grooming Your Child for Sexual Abuse?

Jill Holtz

April 27, 2016

girl with teddy

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It’s fair to say that one of the biggest fears that parents have is that their child is being groomed by someone for sexual abuse. In this article Feather Berkower, founder of Parenting Safe Children, explains how to tell if someone is grooming your child for sexual abuse.

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If you’d like to know how to keep your child safe from sexual abuse, just ask a person who sexually abuses children.

In my capacity as an international child abuse prevention expert, I sometimes meet with child sexual abusers in offender groups so I can better understand child sexual abuse and equip parents and professionals to prevent it.

It’s never easy to hear the stories, but the men and women I meet welcome my questions and want me to share their comments with you, so you know what to look for and how to protect your child.

#1. “We can be anyone.”

The offender groups include fathers and mothers, teachers and business people, working class and middle class, and people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. What they all share in common, however, is that they knew the child or teen they abused, and had access, privacy, and power.

quoteSome, but not all, were sexually abused themselves as children, and some started abusing children when they were teens.

What these offenders want you to know is that people who sexually abuse children are already in your lives, and they already have your love and trust and your child’s love and trust. In fact, 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows, and not by strangers, as commonly thought. Child sexual abuse takes place in homes, youth organizations, schools, camps, places of faith – any place children are alone with adults or alone with older children, who are in a position of authority and whom they come to know and trust.

Statistically, one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. But there’s good news: Child sexual abuse can be prevented when parents learn about the behaviors to watch for and proactively communicate with all caregivers about boundaries and body safety.

Test Your Knowledge about child sexual abuse.

child sexual abuse

#2. “Pay attention to our behaviors.”

People who sexually abuse children methodically groom to gain access and then compliance. One offender said,

“The kids I abused were all seeking love. I would shower the child with gifts, special treatment and attention, and painstakingly move toward the moment when I could gain compliance and cross the line.”

In some instances, the parent is also being groomed, which often looks like a level of generosity that is probably too good to be true: free babysitting, excessive willingness to “help out,” and even financial assistance.

Fortunately, parents can learn to recognize grooming behaviors, such as

  • favoring children over peers
  • going out of one’s way to spend time alone with a child
  • showing special treatment to a child
  • allowing kids to break rules
  • gift-giving
  • lots of attention
  • a listening ear
  • taking a child’s side
  • manipulation
  • introducing kids to sexual material or talking about sex (i.e., sexualizing the relationship).

Thirty to 50 percent of abuse is committed by youth, so it’s important to pay attention to possible grooming behaviors in teens and adults.

#3 “We’re really good at what we do, so speak up.”

3 boys with basketball

In each of the groups I attend, I ask participants, “If parents had talked with you about body-safety rules and boundaries, would that have deterred you?” The answer is almost always a resounding “Yes!” For instance, one person said,

“Parents have to pay attention to the people who are spending time with their children. If someone had talked to me about boundaries, I wouldn’t have offended my relative.”

People who sexually abuse children are likely to run in a different direction if they see that the parent is involved and the child is educated. In the words of one man,

“If I drive up to a bank and see cop cars, I’m going to move on. I’ll go down the street and rob a different bank.”

Parents tell me it’s so much harder to speak with the people they know, but this child sexual abuser makes it very clear that you have to be willing to speak with friends and family members about body safety, no matter how uncomfortable you may be:

“If you see someone, even a family member, spending a lot of time with your child instead of his or her own peers, ask why. Parents would have no problem interrupting a stranger with their child, but they are uncomfortable asking Uncle Joe.”

By not bringing ‘Uncle Joe’ onto your prevention team, your child is vulnerable. Yet time and time again, parents tell me that they are nervous talking with a relative, or any caregiver for that matter, about body safety. Parents tell me they worry about offending a relative, sounding “over protective” with a teacher, or accusatory with another parent.

But parents might ask themselves, “am I willing to feel a little uncomfortable so my child doesn’t have to?”

Tips for Talking with Caregivers about Your Child’s Body Safety

mom on phone

  • Tell them you talk to all caregivers. Let the other person (e.g., parent, teacher, counselor, coach) know that you talk with all of your child’s caregivers about your child’s body-safety rules, so the person you’re talking with doesn’t feel singled out.
  • Normalize the conversation. Inviting someone onto your prevention team isn’t about “grilling” a caregiver; it’s a conversation – an extension of the safety discussions you’re probably already having about other topics like allergies, wearing bike helmets, and so forth.
  • The conversation is about matching expectations, and in the course of your discussion, here are four points to convey to every caregiver:
    1. We teach our children body-safety rules.
    2. My child is the boss of his/her body.
    3. We teach our children to respect adults, but it’s okay for them to say “no” and tell if they ever feel unsafe.
    4. Our children do not keep secrets.
  • When talking with schools and youth organizations, I encourage parents to ask for a copy of the program’s child sexual abuse prevention policies and discuss three questions:
    1. Beyond background checks, what is the screening process for new hires?
    2. What kind of child sexual abuse prevention training do you offer staff and volunteers?
    3. What specific policies are in place to minimize the risk of child sexual abuse? (e.g. buddy system in which a teacher/counselor is never alone with a student/camper).

Feather Berkower, LCSW, is founder of the Parenting Safe Children, the PSC Online Workshop and co-author of Off Limits, a parenting book that will change the way you think about keeping kids safe. Feather has educated over 250,000 school children, parents, and professionals. She makes a difficult topic less scary, and empowers parents and communities to keep children safe. Visit for more information 


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