When a child is sexually abused it is never their fault and it’s crucial that parents and carers recognise this. Knowing that they are supported and believed can be a huge help to a child as they move forward from the abuse.
Even if you know it's not their fault, it can be really hard to understand how your child has found themselves in a situation where they have felt they had to, or wanted to, engage in sexual activities with an adult or older person.
One way this can happen is as a result of ‘grooming’.
What is grooming and how does it work?
Grooming is a process used by people with a sexual interest in children to prepare a child for sexual abuse. It is often very carefully planned and it can take place over weeks, months or even years.
Building a relationship
Grooming is about making a child think that sex with the offender is normal or that they have no choice. Offenders do this by building a relationship and emotional connection with the child.
This relationship can take different forms.
- They could try to convince the young person that they are in a loving relationship as boyfriend or girlfriend.
- They might become a mentor to the young person, making them think they are someone who can help them or teach them things.
- Sometimes they will become a dominant figure in a young person’s life, perhaps by having a relationship with their parent or caregiver.
- They may also build a relationship with the child’s family, making them think that they are someone who can be trusted with the child.
One of the most sinister aspects of grooming is the way in which it so closely mimics genuinely positive relationships. This can leave its victims very unsure of who to trust, sometimes assuming that they can trust no one, even people who seem to be nice and to care.
Gaining power over a child
In all of these relationships they will be looking to gain power over the young person. This enables them to manipulate or coerce them into sexual activity.
If a young person feels they are in love, this gives an offender power. The offender can emotionally blackmail the child by threatening to withdraw their affection or saying, ‘if you loved me you would.’
Offenders also blackmail children by threatening to share secrets that the child has told them. In some cases they will tell the child there will be terrible consequences for refusing to do sexual things.
Offenders will use any means they can to exert power over a young person.
Keeping it secret
In all cases they will look to make sure that the young person won’t tell anyone else about the abuse, telling them to keep it secret.
They often tell young people that no one will believe them, or that if they tell anyone they will be the one in trouble. This is why it is so important to tell a young person that you believe them and do not blame them if they disclose they have been sexually abused.
Remember many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed, or that what has happened is abuse. Even if they tell you or you find out about the abuse, young people may attempt to remain in ongoing contact with the offender and have very mixed feelings about it all. They will need your help in making sense of their feelings, and protecting them from further abuse.