Grooming is an aspect of child sexual abuse that can be very difficult to identify. Psychologist Carla Van Dam described the grooming of children and potential protective adults in their lives as ‘invisible’[1] and Gallagher described it as ‘grappling with smoke’[2].  In addition, so much of what constitutes grooming is often not illegal.[3] The reality, though, is that grooming is often not invisible – it is just not sufficiently understood.

In her recent report about protecting children from harm, the Children’s Commissioner for England estimated that in the two-year period from April 2012 to March 2014, there were 400,000 – 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England. However, only around 50,000 victims were known to statutory agencies during that time. Clearly there is a need to better recognise the signs of abuse and identify and challenge subtle grooming techniques, but how can this be achieved?

The answer lies in better understanding the psychology of offenders, incorporating this with current research and listening to the experiences of victims. We’ve put together a briefing to help frontline professionals recognise grooming:

What is grooming?

Surprisingly, there is no agreement amongst researchers or clinicians on how to define grooming[4] and much of what constitutes grooming is not illegal.[5] In essence, grooming is the behaviour that is considered necessary by the perpetrator in advance of, and subsequent to, the sexual abuse of a child, to ensure he/she achieves his/her goal and optimises detection avoidance.  However, grooming also incorporates planning for disclosure on the part of the victim and how to discredit them if this occurs. It is no surprise that even when children do disclose sexual abuse, it often continues[6].

Grooming can be a sophisticated and lengthy process

Individuals with a sexual interest in children increase their grooming expertise and hone their grooming skills as a by-product of the offending itself,[7] all the while maintaining a normal outward presentation to others[8]. It is a non-linear process[9] that can vary in technique depending upon context and/or the age of the child.[10] Moreover, the implementation and development of grooming tactics can be carried out over days, months and even years[11].

Professionals should focus on behaviours, not actions

Possibly what makes the definition, understanding and prevention of grooming so difficult is the fact that it is the underlying motivation of a behaviour that is the issue as opposed to the overt actions that most people see. For those whom the motivation is to sexually abuse a child and to ensure they are not caught, a seemingly innocuous action may actually be part of the manipulation of a child and the adults in their world.

Decisions about contact shouldn’t be made without a comprehensive risk assessment

Frontline professionals regularly ask us about the advisability of contact when there are suspicions or confirmation of child sexual abuse. Every case is different and the situation is never straightforward: Dad may have abused children other than his own, he may be denying the allegations, his offences may be non-contact, and the children may desperately want to see him… how do we proceed? Unless the individual has undertaken a comprehensive assessment we are not likely to be clear on[12] whether they are a risk or how that risk might manifest. Neither will we be clear on the grooming style(s) of the individual and the emotional rapport, the interpersonal subtleties and the grooming legacy they will have laid down, which can be used to influence retractions/silence further disclosures/dupe professionals and family members.

Grooming lasts beyond disclosures, arrests and convictions

We need to remember that grooming does not stop when a disclosure is made: the legacy of the manipulation, power and control remains even when the perpetrator is caught. Children retract allegations, mothers excuse their partners and professionals sometimes accept what they are told by perpetrators at face value.[13]

The most powerful elements of grooming are psychological

Another recent study[14] into victim experiences found that the emotional and interpersonal aspects of grooming were the most impactful in silencing children and others. They highlight the importance of understanding the psychological aspects of grooming and offender behaviour and emphasis how the traditional concepts we hold – such as offering gifts – are an outmoded and a limited perspective.

Grooming is a coat of many colours

In an interesting article entitled[15] A Comparison of Victim and Offender Perspectives of Grooming and Sexual Abuse, we learn that, unsurprisingly, there are typically distinct differences between the account of the offender and that of the victims not only about the abuse but also about the grooming behaviour.  Perhaps most importantly, it was highlighted that grooming was different between each child and offender.


[1] Van Dam, 2013, p.5

[2] Gallaher (1998)

[3] Bennett and O’Donohue, 2014

[4] Bennett, 2014.

[5] Bennett and O’Donohue, 2014

[6]Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action’, 2015

[7] Bourke, Ward & Rose, 2014

[8] Quayle et al, 2014.

[9] Webster et al, 2012; Whittle, Hamilton-Giachritsis and Beech, 2014

[10] Leclerc, Proulx &Beauregard, 2009; Sullivan, 2009

[11] Craven, Brown & Gilchrist,2007


[13] Buschman, Wilcox, Krapohl, Oelrich & Hackett, 201

[14] Katz et al (2015)

[15] Whittle et al. (2015)

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