It is important to understand the process of grooming to prevent harm. But it can be difficult to talk. Grooming has been a taboo topic until recently but to keep children safe, we need to talk about it.

What is grooming?

Grooming can be difficult to talk about. It has been a taboo topic until recently but to keep children safe, we need to talk about it. It is important to have open discussions about who is vulnerable to grooming and what signs to look out for. If you work with children and young people, having the language to talk about grooming behaviours and how they make children feel unsafe can help minimise risk. An environment that allows frank discussions about the risks of grooming can support children and young children who are concerned about their safety.

People who engage in grooming behaviour are in the process of preparing a child or young person for sexual abuse. Grooming is the lead up to conducting acts of sexual abuse. Grooming behaviour involves the perpetrator manipulating a child to gain their trust, build rapport, and exert their power over them. Most states and territories in Australia classify grooming as a serious offence and is punishable by law.

Who is at risk of being groomed?

Perpetrators target specific children and young people who show signs of being vulnerable. They take advantage of any opportunity they can use. Children in vulnerable circumstances tend to respond to any kind of attention. Children who are likely to be targeted may experience some of the following risk factors:

  • bullying
  • lack of a strong support system
  • isolated and lack of friends
  • family issues such as domestic violence or divorce.

Perpetrators can also ‘groom’ family members, and workers in organisations, to be seen as ‘trusted’ and enable them to spend time with the child they are targeting.

Understanding the process of grooming

The grooming process is aimed at gaining power over a child and manipulating them into conducting sexual acts. Grooming tends to follow patterns that may include these behaviours:

  • targeting a specific child
  • building trust and rapport with the child and their family
  • giving the child special attention
  • isolating the child
  • beginning to sexualise the relationship with the child
  • maintaining overall control of the child once sexual abuse has occurred, for example using secrets, blame and threats.

Read more about the stages of grooming

What grooming behaviour looks like

Grooming behaviour can occur online and in person. Unfortunately, the majority of grooming behaviour is committed by family members or close friends. It can be hard for a child to identify when an individual they trust is displaying grooming behaviour.

Be concerned if an older adult or peer is behaving in the following ways:

  • making physical contact with a young child that is sexual in nature and inappropriate, such as play-fighting, rough and tumble play, hugging, or touching inappropriate parts of the body
  • giving a child lots of special attention such as giving gifts for no special occasion that makes the child feel they owe respect and trust
  • spending time alone with the child rather than spending time with individuals of similar age such as professional colleagues or peers (adults or children)
  • referring to a child’s body in an inappropriate manner.

Profile of groomers

The uncomfortable reality is that grooming, and child sexual abuse is committed by family members, by people in youth-serving organisations and institutions in a position of power, and by children themselves. There is growing evidence that peer-to-peer abuse is under-recorded.

Some offenders are motivated by the need to control and to have power over a child. These offenders engage in a form of aggression. They have no specific sexual preference for children - the age of the victim is irrelevant. They are opportunistic and take advantage of situations that mask their behaviour.

Other offenders have a sexual attraction to children. They are referred to as pedophiles

Creating a safe environment

Organisations can take a situational crime prevention approach to remove opportunities that enable perpetrators to abuse children and young people. This involves adapting environments that increase the potential for harm. It also involves increasing the level of difficulty for someone to offend and reducing the appeal of the crime and the vulnerability of the child. To improve safety for children, organisations need to foster a positive culture where all adults take an active role in identifying and responding to risks to children’s safety. Some of these are mandated, others can be developed by each organisation:

 
Mandatory for all organisations Tailored by organisations
  • Working with Children checks
  • screening for suitable staff
  • reporting of child abuse and neglect

Read more on mandatory reporting laws.

  • change location design and workplace practices and eliminate ‘hot spots’
  • minimise or prevent one-on one activities
  • develop a code of behaviour
  • offer regular staff training
  • ensure that staff know what to do when a child discloses sexual abuse, how to report sexual abuse, and how to respond to the child’s needs when disclosure is made

Responding when a child discloses information on their personal safety

Most children who disclose when they feel unsafe are likely to tell their mothers and fathers. They are less likely to make the first disclosure to professionals such as teachers and coaches. When they do share information about feeling unsafe, it is important to allow the child to know they are being heard and to be reassured. They need to hear the trusted adult saying statements like this:

  • “I believe you”
  • “You did the right thing by talking to me”
  • “It is never OK for kids to get hurt”
  • “I will discuss with you what can happen next and who we will share this with”
  • “We will keep you involved and informed and you can continue to feel safe to tell us how you feel and what you want” 

Australian Human Rights Commission. (2021). A guide for children and young people to the national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse. Australian Human Rights Commission.
https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/childrens-rights/publications/guide-children-and-young-people-national-strategy-prevent

Bravehearts Foundation (2019, December 13). What is grooming? Bravehearts Foundation.
https://bravehearts.org.au/what-is-grooming/

Darkness to Light. (2020, January 29). Grooming and red flag behaviours. Darkness to Light.
https://www.d2l.org/child-grooming-signs-behavior-awareness/

El-Murr, A. (2017). Problem sexual behaviours and sexually abusive behaviours in Australian children and young people: A review of available literature. Retrieved from: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/problem-sexual-behaviours-and-sexually-abusive-behaviours-australian-children

Institute of Child Protection Studies. (2017). Situational crime prevention. Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University.
https://safeguardingchildren.acu.edu.au/-/media/feature/micrositesarticles/safeguardingchildren/situational_crime_prevention_for_csa.pdf

Russell, D.H., & Higgins, D. J. (2021). Children and young people’s safety: 2018-2020 Report.
Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University. https://doi.org/10.26199/sjap-kn57

Victorian State Government. (2022, January). Child sexual exploitation and grooming. Department of Education and Training. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/health/childprotection/Pages/expolitationgrooming.aspx#link2

 

This article was developed in collaboration with Rebecca Scorgie as part of her studies at Australian Catholic University

This article was developed in collaboration with Rebecca Scorgie as part of her studies at Australian Catholic University.

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Further information

For further information on crisis responses and reporting child abuse and neglect, see: Australian Institue of Family Studies website.

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