Psychological grooming is a growing concern for minors and vulnerable populations who are often unaware of the subtle forms of this manipulation tactic. While people believe children are the target population for grooming, adults can also be targets for grooming behaviors. Grooming is when a person builds a relationship, including trust and an emotional connection, with the intent to manipulate, exploit, and abuse them mentally, sexually, or physically. With increasing social media presence, psychological grooming is no longer just an in-person coercion tactic. Grooming behaviors are seen online via social media applications, email exchanges, texting channels, and gaming platforms. People engaging in grooming behaviors may be strangers, friends, partners, family members, authority figures, mentors, or familiar people. Clear red flags of grooming are being deceptive of age, love bombing, encouraging financial support, showering with gifts, reinforcing intense emotional connection, flooding with attention, being quick to develop an emotional bond, or using false identities. There is often a process to grooming behaviors which includes:
Identifying the victim – people seeking others who are lonely, minors, impressionable, or suffer from mental health or physical ailments. The lack of a strong and healthy support network and the presence of neglect may increase the risk of being a target. The predator aggressively attempts to build an individual and deeper relationship while encouraging the victim’s dependency on the predator. Building dependency may include physically or emotionally isolating the victim from their existing family and friends, which may happen over a few weeks to months.
Building trust – the predator will seek to fulfill their needs or intentionally play on their insecurities to build a false sense of trust. They may offer overwhelming support in the forms of listening, offering validation, pet name-calling, excessive communication, and constant attention. This method of building a false friendship places the predator in a position of control, and the victim may eventually feel reliant on the predator for ongoing emotional support. The manipulation of building trust makes the victim feel special and even idolized, reinforcing the deceiving bond.
Maintaining the role – the predator will go to lengths to uphold the curated image and be in good standing with the victim for their gain. They may isolate the victim and attempt to create private opportunities for “quality time.” Alone time may even include the predator gaining the trust of the parental figure to gain closer access to the victim. Isolating the victim may include babysitting, mentorship, coaching, and overnight stays to continue curating the relationship. Maintaining the role involves the predator remaining in control of the situation and using specific language that may suggest their connection is unique and unlike any other.
Creating secrecy – as part of their grooming behaviors, the abuser will emphasize secrecy and the privacy of their relationship. The emotional manipulation instills fear into the victim with subtle threats, blame, and guilt-tripping. The predator attempts to coerce the victim into not sharing their behaviors due to the emotional connection feeling necessary despite its unhealthy characteristics and foundation. Once secrecy is secured and reinforced, it becomes more challenging to defy the predatory and break the perceived trust out of fear of losing the relationship and fear of repercussions.
Initiating contact – the predator may attempt to initiate physical contact once they feel they are no longer at risk of being discovered. They may begin to normalize sexual conversations and may explore physical touch. Creating contact may start in environments where the victim is defenseless such as bathrooms, locker rooms, swimming areas, bedrooms, etc. Sexualizing the relationship may also occur in subtle ways, such as exposing the victim to sexual photos, exploring self-stimulation, etc. Physical touch may happen in front of a parent, with a hug or hand holding to observe the child’s reaction in front of their parent.
While the grooming process is not black and white, it is disturbing, alarming, and has detrimental short and long-term impacts. Signs to look out for within someone victimized by grooming behaviors is withdrawing from social situations. A friend who begins avoiding a specific person or location and appears socially withdrawn within social environments where they are usually more engaged is a sign that something may be wrong. Victims may also become angry, or experience heightened negative emotions, including guilt and shame. Anxiety and depressive symptoms are potential markers for someone experiencing grooming behaviors. Changes in eating habits, whether restrictive or binge eating, is an attempt to regain control when other areas of life feel out of control. Self-medicating using drugs or alcohol is viewed as a means of coping with their situation. The onset of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancy is a clear warning sign of sexual abuse. The presence of self-harm and suicidal ideations are also a telling sign that someone is experiencing extreme internal distress and is seeking relief.
There are also warning signs to recognize within the abuser, such as not having age-appropriate friends, overstepping boundaries, or oversharing information about their personal life. Predators will sexualize people and make inappropriate observations about others’ bodies. They have challenges accepting “no” and may try to be friendly by making excuses for spending alone time with the victim. While these are a few signs of being mindful, abusers are often very intentional and cautious in their grooming behaviors, making it challenging to recognize.
Grooming behaviors, exploitation, manipulation, coercion, and any additional form of abuse should be immediately addressed and reported to end further harm. There are several ways to help; start by creating a safe space to have a conversation with your loved one and express your concern and unconditional support. Another way to help is to immediately report any suspicion of grooming behaviors or abuse to the National Sexual Assault Hotline via phone or 800.656.HOPE (4673), online.rainn.org, or visit childhelp.org. If something seems inappropriate, uncomfortable, strange, or unusual, it may be and is worth airing on the side of caution to ensure the safety of our community.