Grooming: How Child Molesters Create Willing Victims*

By Laurie A. Gray © 2010

There’s an old urban legend that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll naturally hop out; however, if you place a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually increase the heat, you’ll end up with a cooked frog. I can’t say whether this is true for frogs, but it certainly is true for many children who are sexually molested. The gradual cooking process is known as “grooming,” and the increased heat is the evaporation of physical and emotional boundaries. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of “grooming” includes “training for a particular purpose.” For child molesters, that purpose is a sexual relationship.
 The Real Danger
Most people still want to believe that child molesters are deviant strangers who abduct children or entice them with candy and puppies. We teach our children to be wary of strangers, to shout “NO!” or run away and tell a trusted adult if anyone should ever approach them in such a manner. We teach them about “good touches” and “bad touches” and believe they will tell us immediately if they receive a “bad touch.” Our intentions are good, but we’re preparing them for the exception, not the reality in sexual abuse.
            In reality, the molester is more likely to be
the trusted adult and the touch is more likely to feel good. There are family members, friends and neighbors, even teachers, coaches and clergy who treat children better than most adults, listen to what they are really saying and strive to meet their emotional, physical and spiritual needs as a means of fulfilling their own sexual needs and desires. The “nicer” the molester appears and the more “troubled” the child appears, the more difficult it is to detect and believe the sexual abuse.
The Grooming Process
Grooming is a perversion of romantic courting—you find yourself interested in someone, find out everything you can about him, see how you might fit into each other’s life, spend lots of time together and eventually become physically intimate. According to former FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, there are five stages in the grooming process: 1) Identify the possible victim; 2) Collect information about the intended victim; 3) Fill a need; 4) Lower inhibitions; and 5) Initiate abuse. 
1.  Identifying the possible victim
            Children make ideal victims. They are naturally curious, easily led by adults, need lots of attention and affection, and are seeking to establish independence from their parents. Children from broken homes and troubled families are easy targets. The more unlovable the child feels and appears, the less likely the child is to tell on someone who displays love and the less likely anyone is to believe the child if the child ever tells. A child recently caught stealing or lying makes a particularly appealing victim. 
2.  Collecting information about the intended victim
            The more a molester knows about his victim, the better able he is to build trust with the child and the child’s parents. He learns how the child responds to attention and praise. He displays a superficial sympathy and charm whenever the child discusses her problems and concerns. He assesses her strengths and weaknesses, taking special note of how she interacts with her friends and the other adults in her life. All of this information will be used to control the child and manipulate the people around her. 
3.  Filling a need 
            The molester exploits the child’s emotional needs by freely offering love, friendship and support. Parents may even feel relieved that the child has found a responsible friend, mentor or role model or that they have found a dependable babysitter, depending on the age of the child. Whatever the parent needs, the molester is pleased to help out. Whatever the child needs or wants, the molester is happy to provide, with or without the parents knowledge or consent. Some molesters will even instigate a sexual relationship with a single parent just to gain access to her children. The greater the family need and the molester’s position of trust, the less ability a child has to say, “NO!” 
4.  Lowering inhibitions
            Once trust is established and the victim is emotionally vested in the relationship, the molester may begin offering gifts or money to the child to see how well she can keep secrets from her parents and to make her feel special and loved. Loving gestures will begin invade her personal space and might include more “acceptable” kisses and hugs, increased touching of the child’s hands, shoulders, arms and legs, and “accidentally” brushing up against private areas.
5.  Initiating abuse
            Gradually, the “accidental” touching to private areas may linger and include professions of love and hints of sexual desire. By the time the touching crosses clear boundaries, the child is too afraid she might lose the relationship to object, and too ashamed of her own perceived part in inviting the abuse to tell. And honestly, physical intimacy feels good. It’s very natural for the child to want it and even enjoy it. 
Shame and Blame
An adult molester’s ability to lie, exaggerate, minimize, rationalize and manipulate people greatly exceeds the ability of a child to sort through her fears and emotions and think reasonably about her molester. Once the child is emotionally attached to the molester, she begins to feel responsible for him and to him. She may even believe that she is as much or more to blame for the abuse as the molester is. At this point, the molester’s psychological manipulations may begin to shift from positive to negative. Criticism or the “silent treatment” may replace praise and flattery. Threats may become more frequent than pronouncements of love. 
Protecting Children
In cases of grooming, much of what we teach our children about sexual abuse creates does more to exacerbate the child’s guilt and shame when they realize something is wrong than to encourage them to tell. At what point should she have shouted “NO!”? Whom should she have told? It’s frightening for parents—even good parents. No wonder so many simply choose to pretend it simply doesn’t happen or couldn’t happen to their child. How can parents protect their kids?
            Awareness is the first step. The second step is focusing our energy on loving our children rather than fearing potential predators. Instead of talking about “good touches” and “bad touches,” model healthy physical and emotional boundaries and talk about what’s private and what’s not. Don’t be embarrassed to answer kids’ questions about body parts and body functions. Be very matter-of-fact and age appropriate. Let your kids know that they can talk to you about anything. Teach them the difference between fun surprises and secrets and let them know that home is a safe place to talk about our secrets.
            Kids who experience the unconditional love of their parents and feel safe in their own home develop a very good internal barometer for appropriate relationships. That’s the best defense we have against child predators who are selecting their potential victims for grooming.

*Not all child molesters are male, and not all victims are female.  However, most molesters are male. Given the restraints of the English language, I have chosen to use masculine pronouns for the child molester and feminine pronouns for the victim for readability and clarity.

Recommended Reading:

“Grooming Children for Sexual Molestation” by Gregory M. Weber, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsinhttp://www.vachss.com/guest_dispatches/grooming.html

“Child Molesters:  A Behavioral Analysis” by Kenneth Lanning, Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent:
http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC70.pdf

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Attorney, author, teacher and child advocate Laurie Gray is the founder of Socratic Parenting LLC (www.SocraticParenting.com). Her debut novel Summer Sanctuary (Luminis Books/2010) received a Moon Beam Gold Medal for excellence in young adult fiction and was named a 2011 Indiana Best Book Finalist. In addition to writing, speaking and consulting, Laurie works as a bilingual child forensic interviewer at her local Child Advocacy Center and an adjunct professor of criminal sciences at Indiana Tech.

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