• little boy playing with blocks

People are surprised to learn that 90% of offenders are known to and trusted by the child or family. These offenders can be:

  • Family members
  • Family friends
  • Teachers
  • Daycare providers
  • Neighbors
  • Babysitters
  • Clergy
  • Coaches
  • Anyone who has unsupervised contact with children 

Abusers exist in every demographic group. They might be single, married, religious, non-religious, and of any age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. 

It’s impossible to identify an abuser by how they look, so we must identify abusers by their behavior and how that behavior makes us feel.


Grooming is the common behavior pattern of abusers. It’s the intentional actions used to build a “trusting” relationship so they can isolate, sexually abuse, and manipulate the victim to keep it a secret. It’s often a slow process. Through grooming, a perpetrator uses deception rather than physical force to begin abusing.

There are phases involved in grooming:

1. Gain Access

Abusers place themselves in settings where children are present.

Some offenders look for jobs or volunteer positions involving children, or just hang out places where they can befriend children (malls, parks, pools, fairs, arcades, etc.). They may even pose as a child online to lure via the internet.

Others become friends with a family with a motive to get next to their children. They might date a single parent who could use some extra help or eagerly offer to babysit so a caregiver can get extra shifts at work. Sometimes they watch for children whose parents or other adult caregivers aren’t able to be around as much.

2. Target A Child

Any child can become targeted. Research shows that there are factors that can contribute to making a child more vulnerable:

  • Gullibility
  • A family with high stress
  • A family with financial problems
  • A child with physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities
  • A child whose parents have poor boundaries, aren’t selective with friendships, or don’t question who comes into their home
  • Children with few friends or family connections
  • Children with low esteem
  • Children with poor boundaries

If you don’t personally identify these vulnerabilities within your family, don’t assume your child isn’t at risk. Ease of access to a certain child can be the single reason one child is targeted – even without the presence of any of these factors.

3. Develop Trust

This step aims to break down protective barriers, making it easier to develop trust with adults and their children. Predators might engage with a child in these ways:

  • Give special attention to the child that makes them feel important
  • Give gifts to the child
  • Give rides to school, daycare, friends’ houses, etc.
  • Talk about adult things, like sex and drinking

They work to create times alone together, using isolation to reinforce their special connection.

4. Introduce Touch/Nudity

Abusers will use innocent touch as a calculated path to sexualized touch. This stage is used to test the water and see whether a child will resist OR tell a parent or other caregiver about the “innocent” touch.

Abusers gradually increase physical contact and start desensitizing a child to being touched by them. Tickling, wrestling, cuddling, massaging an injury, drying with a towel after swimming are all examples. These “innocent” or “accidental” contacts get a child used to touching and weakens their natural defenses.

5. Promote Secrecy

To stop the child from telling anyone, they promote secrecy.

This often starts before sexual abuse, with the abuser calling themselves a “secret friend” or praising the child as a “best secret keeper” as a way to bond the “special friendship.” It helps distance children from parents and other adults.

They might start with secrets about candy. With older children, secrets might be about drinking, smoking, or pornography.

Once the abuser has escalated to sexualized touch, secrecy is used to cruelly maintain the child’s continued participation and make sure they don’t disclose.

Now that you know how to identify grooming behavior, you know how important it is to stay involved or supervise every relationship your child has with an adult or other youth. Click below to review 10 Steps to Prevent Your Child from Sexual Abuse.

Based at Dakota Medical Foundation
4141 28th Avenue South Fargo, ND 58104  |  (701) 271-0263

About Stand to Protect

We focus on adult education surrounding child sexual abuse prevention in Cass and Clay counties.

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse use profound manipulation to enforce secrecy, often overpowering abilities a child might have to disclose. We help adults see common abuser behaviors and learn 10 protection steps that empower kids, bring greater safety and lower risk. We teach through powerful and positive one-hour sessions at youth organizations, businesses, churches, schools, PTAs, service clubs or community settings.

This content is based upon evidence in research literature and shaped by collective experiences of Red River Children’s Advocacy Center, Cass and Clay County Social Services, Prevent Child Abuse ND, and Sanford Center for Biobehavioral Research. Leadership for the collaborative work of Stand to Protect is provided by Dakota Medical Foundation. 

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