Grooming Children For Sexual Abuse
Recently HBO aired “Leaving Neverland”, a documentary that explores Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s accusations of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson. At the time of the purported abuse the boys were 7 and 10 years old respectively.
The documentary details the accuser’s descriptions of how Michael Jackson befriended the boys, developed a relationship with their parents, found ways to spend time alone with each child, and gradually turned the relationship into a sexual one. Robson and Safechuck have also noted that, as young children, they felt conflicted about revealing the truth of the sexual abuse.
My point, in what follows, is not to adjudicate the veracity of Safechuck and Robson’s claims. Instead I wish to use the renewed interest of this well-known trial regarding child sexual abuse to focus on a common tactic that perpetrators use to lure children into abusive relationships. We will also look briefly at the impact such abuse has on children, and how the victims can be helped.
Child Sexual Abuse: The Trojan Horse
The description that Robson and Safechuck give of their relationship with Jackson reflects a common pattern of seduction well known by mental health professionals who work with abused children. Some may think ‘seduction’ an odd term to use in this context. As you read further, however, about the way in which predators carefully manipulate children and parents in order to satisfy their evil intentions, you will see that seduction is an apt term.
Contrary to popular belief, sexual abuse most often occurs by someone the child knows and trusts. Indeed, it is often someone that the parents also know, value and trust. This is the Trojan Horse strategy: winning a family’s trust in order to gain access to a desired victim.
Because the predator holds a privileged place of trust within the life of the child and family, the abuse is felt even more keenly as a betrayal, and leads to much greater feelings of shock and guilt.
People commonly ask how it is that such abuse is not immediately discovered by the parents, and why children do not report such acts at once. Some will question how parents ended up trusting adults that, in hindsight, were such heinous individuals? In some instances the question will be raised as to how the abuser maintained his relationship with the child for such an extended time?
The answer to these questions is found in the premeditated plan predators frequently follow when attempting to prey on young children. As a parent, grandparent, or concerned adult, it is a good idea to be familiar with these tactics so as to be better able to protect vulnerable youngsters.
TWO STAGES OF SEXUAL ABUSE (BY NON-RELATED BUT FAMILIAR ADULTS)
There are two stages by which children and their parents are lured into such exploitation, and that exploitation is maintained by the same means. Keep in mind that I will be referring to the case of sexual predators who have no kinship relation to the child.
The first of these phases is referred to as ‘grooming.’ This involves the abuser focusing his attention on preparing the child to acquiesce to being sexually abused. Equally important in this stage is manipulating the parent into providing the abuser unfettered access to the child. Indeed, this is the biggest hurdle, and consequently becomes a focus of the abuser’s attention early in the process (Pollack and MacIver, 2015).
As you would expect, most parents will only allow trusted adults to have unsupervised time with their child. For abusers, this natural parental caution represents the first obstacle that must be overcome, which abusers do by finding ways to gain parents’ trust.
The easiest way is when trust occurs naturally due to the role the adult has in the child or family’s life: coach, teacher, principle, tutor, minister, scout leader, etc. Each of us have seen examples of these types of abusers in the news on a regular basis. Despite how frequently we are exposed to these types of abusers, however, this is the least common path by which trust is developed.
Much more frequently the would-be abuser will not have the advantage of built in trust and instead must find a way to work himself into the family circle. A predator can often gain trust by offering support or assistance to the family/child, particularly if the family or child is vulnerable in some way – loneliness, developmentally delayed or physically handicapped children or parents, financially struggles, and other challenges can be utilized by an abuser to position himself as someone who is supportive, caring, and trustworthy. Single mothers and their children are often particularly vulnerable in this way.
Indeed, the majority of child sexual abuse (by non-familial adults) occurs against girls raised by single mothers (Sedlack et al, 2010). The reason for this is that the single mother is a readily identifiable target for abusers. These mothers are often under great stress due to the extreme demands they face as a single parent. Given these pressures, such parents tend to be needier, and more appreciative of those who are willing to provide this assistance. When an abuser identifies this type of target, he can initiate a relationship with the parent with the aim of gaining her trust.
As one perpetrator disclosed in a research interview:
“When a person like myself wants to obtain access to a child, you don't just go up and get the child and sexually molest the child. There's a process of obtaining the child's friendship and, in my case, also obtaining the family's friendship and their trust. When you get their trust, that's when the child becomes vulnerable and you can molest the child.” (Salter, 2003, p. 42)
Trust may be established at first by simply showing what appears to be genuine interest in the mother and her child. With time the abuser deepens this trust by providing help (giving the parent a ride, fixing something around the house, etc.).
This can be a slow methodical process or a rapid escalation of involvement. The progress in grooming at this stage depends on how receptive, or cautious, the parent is when confronted with these overtures of assistance and interest. For example, if the parent lacks transportation then providing rides to the grocery store, post office, child care and so forth will rapidly establish trust. If the water heater breaks down and the abuser is able to fix it, thereby saving the parent inconvenience and the money for repairs, trust is also quickly moved forward.
It is also not uncommon for an abuser to gain trust by establishing a romantic relationship with the mother, which can be particularly disastrous. Children who live with a single parent and their unmarried partner (i.e. a single mother and her boyfriend) are 20 times more likely to be sexually abused than children who live with two married parents (Sedlack et al, 2010).
While meeting the needs of the family in those ways just described, the predator will begin to show a non-threatening, benevolent interest in the child. When trust is established with the parent, the abuser can begin to shift his focus toward the child.
This often takes the form of being helpful to the parent, or to the child that is being targeted for abuse. The perpetrator, for example, may use the ruse of helping a mother by saying: “You are too busy to take Jane to the movies. Let me do that for you this weekend. It will give you a chance to catch up on all of that paperwork… or get a chance to rest. You deserve it and I’m glad to help out. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Jane has a great time.”
The key, from the abuser’s perspective, is that he has time alone with the youngster.
When the mother finally relents and lets her daughter go to the movies with their new friend, Jane is likely to come home having had a good time. No abuse will have occurred.
Perpetrators know to work slowly as they manipulate a child into a state of emotional confusion. By first having the child see them as a safe, loving, adult the abuser increases the chances that the child will misperceive his initial boundary violations as being innocent.
Eventually, as more one to one time with the child is allowed, the perpetrator begins to slowly breech appropriate boundaries. By approaching these violations in a gradual way, the abuser hopes to avoid creating a great deal of alarm in the child. That might lead the youngster to disclose something to her parents.
Additionally, by breaching boundaries in ways that are more subtle and less obvious, the child is likely to give the abuser the benefit of the doubt. The abuser’s goal is to make it so the child will assume that even if these boundary violations feel improper, they are actually safe and normal.
An example will help clarify how this proceeds. Imagine the situation wherein a ‘new friend’ of a single young mother has taken her daughter to the movies for a fun Saturday afternoon. This brief time alone allows the mother to catch up with chores, errands and paperwork. The friend’s gesture is very thoughtful and much appreciated.
Upon arriving home from the movies the family friend parks in front of the child’s home, turns to the little girl and asks if she had a good time. Smiling broadly, she gushes about how much fun the day had been.
The man then tells her that she is a special little girl, he would like to keep taking her out to fun places, and then pats her thigh, leaving his hand resting on her leg. Not so high as to be a clear breach of propriety, but high enough to be uncomfortable. He leaves his hand on her thigh for several seconds, then removes it and smiles, telling her again that they should plan other activities together.
He then walks the little girl to the front door, chats amiably with the mother for several minutes, expresses gratitude that he could be of help, and walks back to his car.
From the child’s perspective this whole situation is uncomfortable and confusing. Someone she trusts has touched her in a way that does not feel right. But because she trusts him, and her mother trusts and likes him, it is difficult to believe that their new friend meant to do anything that was improper.
The confusion leads her to remain silent, uncertain if she really has anything to disclose to her mother. What’s more, how could he be a bad man? Didn’t he walk her right up to her front door? Didn’t she see her mother smiling and thanking him for being so nice?
Over time these violations of personal boundaries continue, slowly and gradually progressing with more severe and more sexual boundary violations. Eventually it culminates in explicit sexual acts.
Maintaining Sexual Abuse
Up until this point the abuser’s attention has been focused on seducing the child into a sexual relationship. Once the abuser has succeeded in breaking down personal boundaries to the point of establishing a sexual relationship, a new focus forms.
The goal now is on maintaining the secretive nature of the abusive relationship. The biggest risk for the predator is that the abuse become known to others.
The child be kept from telling anyone about the abuse. This is the ‘maintenance’ phase of child abuse. Predators use a variety of means to prevent their victims from disclosing the abuse. Most of the time more than one type of manipulation is employed to maintain a child’s silence. Although not an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common methods.
Threatening Many abusers will simply threaten the child in order to gain their cooperation after the abuse has begun. These threats usually focus on inflicting harm to the child or her family. Young children are prone to see abusers as being exceptionally powerful, consequently these threats can be exceptionally effective.
Other common threats include:
“No one will believe you. That means everyone will know you are a liar.”
“You’ll be disowned by your family.”
“Your friends at school will think you are dirty.”
“If you tell anyone I will hurt your family.”
“I will kill you if you ever tell.”
Blaming This approach employs activating the child’s guilt. Very young children are especially vulnerable to this ploy. Because the abuse came on slowly, and was mixed with outings and interactions that the child enjoyed (e.g., going to the park, to the movies, out for ice cream, etc.), children are often lured into believing that they truly are at fault.
The specific form that blaming takes is often seen in statements such as:
“It’s your fault – you wanted this to happen.”
“It’s your fault – you should have told me to stop,” or “You could have stopped it.”
“It was for your own good – I was just teaching you about adult relationships.”
“It’s your fault – you enjoyed it.”
Guilt Guilt and shame often begin to take root following abuse, and predators capitalize on those emotions in the children they abuse. It is hugely difficult for children to disclose abuse when they are overcome with feelings of shame and feel as though they are to blame. The types of statement abusers make in order to encourage such guilt include:
“I’ll be sent away to prison…. I may die in prison just because I loved you.”
“It will be very hard on your family if they learn about this – they will not understand. They will be so sad and hurt.”
“Your family will be ashamed that you did these things. They will be disgusted with you. They might even send you away – who wants to be around someone who does these things? I’m the only one who really understands.”
“You’re going to make your parents feel awful.”
“There is nothing wrong with what we’ve done. We just love one another, what’s wrong with that?”
IMPACT OF SEXUAL ABUSE ON CHILDREN
The impact of sexual abuse varies widely. Some children develop PTSD. Still others are burdened with deep emotional wounds that severely impact their ability to form healthy relationships.
A common misunderstanding of child sexual abuse is that victims are almost always doomed to a life of grief, sadness and emotional distress. Although that is true for a small percentage of children, the majority of victims are able to recover. This is a testimony to the emotional strength of these youngsters, and the support they receive.
Even though most children are likely to recover from sexual abuse, this in no way diminishes how vile and despicable it is for predators to behave in these ways. It does not in any way excuse the abuse, nor lessen the need to punish those who prey on children.
It does, however, shine a hopeful light on the prognosis of those who are dealing with the impact of sexual abuse. Many parents, upon learning that their child has been abused, worry that a happy future is now forever out of reach. This is not the case. But to best insure that a positive outcome can eventually be won, it is helpful to recognize the common reactions to abuse that frequently need to be resolved.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
If a child has PTSD it will likely express itself through nightmares, intrusive thoughts, a heightened sense of anxiety, hypervigilance, mood swings and avoiding anything that reminds them of the abuse. This may mean the child avoids people who are somehow similar to the abuser, specific locations, even particular objects, smells, etc.
Although PTSD is perhaps the most common response that people think about when hearing that a child has been sexually abused, there are many other reactions children frequently experience. Let’s look at four of these.
Distrust Sexual abuse always involves a betrayal of trust. It is no surprise, then, that many children who have been sexually abused end up struggling to trust adults. Sometimes they wrestle with trusting any adult. Other children mainly find it difficult to trust adults who remind them of their abuser (for example, a child may find it extremely difficult to trust adult males who are not a close relative).
These conflicts with trust can express themselves in unexpected ways. Some children deal with the distrust by becoming overly submissive (fearing that if they assert themselves the adult will become abusive). Others take the opposite approach when dealing with distrust and simply withdraw and avoid adults that provoke these fears.
Helplessness After being sexually abused many children experience a profound sense of helplessness. Once again, we find that reactions to this sequela of sexual abuse may be expressed in behaviors that are at variance to one another. One child may respond to feelings of helplessness by attempting to assume control over aspect of her life that she had no particular interest in before (for example, what she will wear, or who is allowed to visit the home). Other children take the opposite approach and become overly compliant, showing every sign of giving in to the helplessness as a way of coping.
Stigmatization When children have been abused, they often respond by feeling that they are now damaged, or in some fundamental way have been broken. Abused children can have varied reactions to this diminished sense of self-worth, including persistent attempts to gain approval of others through achievements, attention-seeking behaviors (including risky behaviors), depression, and social isolation.
Sexualization One of the devastating consequences of having been sexually abused is that the child comes to see affection and concern as inexorably entwined within a sexual relationship. As a result, many sexually abused children will unconsciously begin to sexualize relationships in an attempt to secure such affirmation. This is often expressed through the violation of personal space (for example, hugging random strangers, or sitting on the laps of strangers). At other times it is expressed by explicit offers of sex.
Of course, other reactions also occur. It is not unusual for a child to become anxious, depressed, or angry as a result of the abuse. The main thing is to be aware of any pronounced changes in mood or behavior and respond accordingly.
It is often helpful to secure the assistance a counselor, even when no significant symptoms are present. By meeting with a therapist, even on a once monthly basis, you will have someone to consult with regarding any concerns that do arise.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP SEXUALLY ABUSED CHILDREN
There are many ways to help children who have been sexually abused.
For example, there are now a variety of research based therapies for treating PTSD – the most frequent disorder associated with sexual abuse. Two of the most popular therapies in this regard include Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TFCBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
If you suspect your child is suffering from this disorder it is important to engage a therapist who has experience and training working with children who suffer with PTSD. It would also be helpful to review some guidelines on finding the therapist who is best for your specific needs.
It is also important to reassure your child that he or she is not at fault. Younger children in particular are prone to feel that in some way they are the cause of the abuse. As noted earlier, abusers will often encourage such thinking as well. Although it may take years for a child to deeply accept that he/she was not at fault, this process begins with adults clearly and unequivocally asserting the child’s innocence.
Because abuse by familiar adults frequently includes affection and expressions of love toward the victim, it often leaves a child confused. Do love and affection require a lack of boundaries? A willingness to be used, making sure the adult’s need always come first?
Part of the healing process involves having healthy answers to those questions. Answers that the child intellectually accepts, and emotionally embraces. This usually requires more than words. More than kind lectures about healthy relationships.
Nearly always it will involve providing the child with corrective experiences. Healthy close relationships with emotionally mature, loving adults will introduce the child to experiences that act as an antidote to what was taught by the predator.
The helpfulness of such relationships is based on the observation that mature concern and affection, expressed to a child by an adult, has no exploitative dimensions. Such a relationship is the very antithesis of what the child experienced when being sexually abused. Being the recipient of such attention and genuine regard provides an essential opportunity for the abused youngster to learn anew what healthy adult affection means (Karakurt & Silver, 2013).
Having an awareness of how predators work puts parents and other caregivers in a strong position to intervene before a child is harmed. The younger the child the more careful one needs to be regarding sexual abuse. Being guarded about who spends unsupervised time with your child is not being paranoid – it is expressing prudence in being protective.
As children get older, they become more capable of speaking up, and more aware of what is appropriate and inappropriate. With these increased abilities in the child it becomes more difficult (but far from impossible) for familiar adults to abuse the child using the techniques I’ve discussed.
It is crucial for parents to discuss ‘good touch/bad touch’ with their children in order to further lessen the chances of abuse. There is also a protective element to be gained from excellent communication between child and parent, and the child having appropriate levels of assertiveness.
One last piece of advice for parents and other adults working with children who have been abused: Do not treat the abused child as though he or she is broken or fragile. Instead, communicate your firm belief that they have the capacity to transcend this chapter of hurt and betrayal.
They can break free of the doubts, fears, feelings of guilt, and self-loathing that frequently haunt children who have been sexually abused. It will be a process, a struggle, and for many it will involve some gut-wrenching moments. If the child can be persistent, resist the urge to give up, and remain focused, her/she will almost certainly find that healthy, happier days lie ahead.
Pollack, D. & McIver, A. (2015). Understanding Sexual Grooming in Child Abuse Cases. ABA Child Law
Practice, 34 (11), 161-168.
Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth
National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Karakurt, G. & Silver, K. E. (2013). Therapy for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Using Attachment and
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