It’s hard for children and young people to know when they’re being abused or exploited. It’s difficult for adults to know, too. We’re likely to ask ourselves the question: how would I know if a child was being groomed or abused? 

Our researchers and project workers understand how abusers work. Here, they share what they know about the common patterns in their behaviour.

How abusers start to offend

Abusers often use a variety of tactics to abuse children, depending on their own grooming skills and the vulnerabilities of the targeted child.

Finding a target

Abusers often identify vulnerabilities within a potential target. Children and young people without trusted adults (or support from them) are often more desirable to abusers, although all young people are potential victims. Some abusers will look for younger children or disabled children. Some offenders will find children online, using social media, live streaming sites and gaming platforms to make contact.

Gaining their trust

The abuser may shower the young person with attention to begin with. They’ll focus on the needs of the child, especially those that are currently unmet, demonstrating what they’ll label as friendship, love, care and understanding. They may provide gifts and/or acts of care to fill any gaps in their needs and eventually gain their trust. Some abusers will also work to get the trust of other adults in the child’s life.

Threats and coercion

The abuser won’t always try to gain the trust of the child. Instead, they may commit the abusive act without any attempts of trust or friendship. For example, some children may send an illicit picture of themselves because an adult has demanded this online - without any prior relationship.

Ensuring the abuse goes undetected

The abuser will then use a range of tactics to try and silence the child or ensure that if the child tells, they’re not believed - or even heard.

Normalising the abuse

There are several ways an abuser will use to do this. And because abusers can single out children that might not have many trusted adults around them or the chance to communicate their worries to adults, the abuser’s behaviour and manipulation of the young person may go unnoticed and unchallenged. 

They will work to normalise their abuse of the victim through sexual talk, viewing pornography and sexual contact. An abuser might tell a young person that their “relationship” is different, special, and that others wouldn’t understand it, so that it’s best kept a “secret”.

Isolating the victim

A young person may be told that their parents don’t really understand them, or that they don’t really care about them. They might be groomed into trusting their friends and family less than they normally would. Abusers do this to erode trust and eventually sever the links that could undermine their control of the victim. Again, this is often done under the guise of “care” for the child. 

Victims are also often made to feel like they’re responsible for “protecting” their family from the consequences of the abuse - the abuser will push on this point to make the victim feel guilty or scared of speaking out.

Using threats or violence to keep control

Child sex abusers will use subtle and direct threats to keep the child manipulated past the initial phase of grooming. They are likely to make the child feel like they owe them, and that other adults will blame, punish and resent them for speaking out. This is especially common in instances where the abuser has gained the trust of the adults in the victim’s life. This confuses and scares the victim into silence and compliance. Their abuser can seem to have complete control over their life and be invincible.

To add to this, adults don’t always hear or accept what children and young people are saying to them - abusers know this and use it to their advantage. It’s up to us to change this.

Giving a child drugs or alcohol

Some children may be given drugs or alcohol as part of the abuse. This often results in children not being able to recall the abuse accurately, if at all. It also means other adults around the child may see them as deviant and less believable if they do tell, or more culpable for the abuse they have suffered.

This list is not exhaustive and there’s no one set way in which abuse is perpetrated. That said, if you’re worried about a child there are ways to talk to them and to get help.

Find out more

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    Helpful information from our practitioners

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