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Signs of Child Grooming: What to Watch For

Child grooming occurs when sometimes tries to build a relationship with children to gain their trust and entice children to participate in sexual activities. Grooming behavior can happen in person or online as adults try to develop a special relationship with a child.

Unfortunately, anyone can engage in grooming behavior. This can include family or relatives, teachers, coaches, professionals, group leaders, strangers, and even other children. Protecting your children requires an understanding of the warning signs that may indicate in-person or online grooming that can lead to sexual abuse.

The Warning Signs of Child Grooming

There are several things to be aware of concerning both children and adults. When you see any of these potential signs of grooming, you should investigate promptly.

In Children

Children and young people who display certain types of behavior may be at risk. Warning signs include:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Secrecy about online activity or friendships
  • Unexplained gifts or possessions
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Lying about whereabouts or activities
  • Fear of being touched
  • Changes in hygiene
  • Aggressive or destructive behavior
  • Including sexual themes in artwork or stories


You may also notice changes in the way they talk. For example, using sexual language or even acting out sexually should be a red flag. If they are hesitant to talk about certain people or activities they participate in or express fear or anxiety about an activity or person, that can also be a warning sign.

Mental Health

Children who are being groomed or experiencing sexual exploitation may suffer mental health issues that can last for the rest of a child’s life. They may suffer from self-esteem issues, struggle with family relationships, or have difficulty with having a healthy romantic relationship or sexual relationship in adulthood.

This can manifest itself in multiple ways as children that you should be aware of, such as:

  • Bouts of anxiety or depression
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Nightmares or flashbacks
  • Regressive behavior, such as bed wetting, thumb sucking

Left untreated, these mental health problems can cause long-term problems. Many child abuse and sexual assault victims harbor the misconception that they are somehow responsible or deserve abuse. These can cause self-destructive behavior and feelings of guilt or shame.

Physical Symptoms

Sexual predators can go to extraordinary lengths to get children to keep sexual contact a secret. This may prevent a child from speaking up even if they know such activity is wrong. It is important to look for the physical warning signs of abuse, such as signs of trauma.  Bleeding or bruising, especially in the genital areas, is not normal.

Some abuse may be visible when children get undressed or appear as blood on sheets or underwear. However, children may try to hide signs of abuse from parents or caretakers. For example, they might try to skip bathtime or refuse to remove clothing until they are alone.

Physical symptoms can include urinary infections, difficulty going to the bathroom, pain or itching in the genital area, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Children may also provide vague illnesses, such as headaches or stomach aches, to avoid interacting with others.

In Adults

People who groom typically lavish excessive or special attention on a child and sometimes include other family members or caregivers in the grooming process to develop trust. However, this can be a sign that something may not be right if the attention seems unnatural. Other warning signs from adults can include:

  • Attempting to be alone with children
  • Discouraging a child’s interactions with other adults
  • Giving frequent gifts
  • Demanding secrecy
  • Not respecting physical or emotional boundaries
  • Talking with children about personal problems or relationships

As part of the grooming process, predators will create a relationship with the child over time and then start to desensitize them to sexuality. This might start with making sexualized comments or inappropriate jokes and escalate to sending or requesting inappropriate pictures.

Uncovering Grooming Behavior

Grooming behavior isn’t always obvious, especially in today’s connected environment. Many predators gain access to a potential victim by connecting with a child online. Texting, instant message, social media, and gaming apps may provide a venue for predators to gain a child’s trust.

Predators often pose as those of a similar age using fake accounts to make the child feel safe before initiating any kind of physical contact — spending time where children are online in the safety of their homes. Child protection advocates highly recommend monitoring your children’s online activities to keep your kids safe.

Stages of Grooming

Sexual grooming and child exploitation often follow similar patterns and can happen slowly over time, preying on vulnerabilities that lead to child sexual abuse. So, you will want to understand the stages of grooming to look for potential signs.

Stages of grooming include:

  • Identifying potential victims
  • Gaining trust and access
  • Playing a role in the child’s life
  • Isolating the child to get them alone
  • Creating secrecy about the relationship
  • Initiating inappropriate and sexual contact
  • Controlling the relationship to prevent discovery

Keeping Children Safe From Abusers

Adults, families, and caregivers need to be aware of these warning signs and take action if they suspect grooming is taking place or sexual abuse is occurring. Organizations that interact with children need to pay particular attention to these signs within their programs or activities.

Vigilant screening of volunteers, staff, and employees is a start, but you also need regular training and monitoring to ensure you are providing the best possible protection. You also need clear policies that detail inappropriate behavior, explain how to report suspected abuse, and timely investigation and response.

Praesidium provides organizations with the tools and skills they need to help protect children and preserve trust. We provide risk assessments, training and education on prevention, and guidance for responding and reporting.

Contact Praesidium today to learn best practices for your organization and help keep children safe from abusers.