6 Stages of Grooming Adults and Teens: Spotting The Red Flags


By Skills for Health | 17 November 2020

It’s National Safeguarding Adults Week and one of the key themes this year is adult grooming. Sadly, social isolation could make the most vulnerable in our society, more likely to be targeted for abuse. With the rise in social media usage and more and more people falling into more vulnerable positions, we thought it paramount to break down the key 6 stages of grooming adults (as well as teens, because the tactics are often the same).

According to the NSPCC and Ann Craft Trust, “grooming is a form of abuse that involves manipulating someone until they’re isolated, dependent, and more vulnerable to exploitation”.

There are different types of grooming – sometimes carried out by an individual to an individual, such as online grooming and child sexual abuse, and other times it is executed by a group of conspiring perpetrators. For the latter, groups might seek to exploit a single person, such as in gang recruitment and cult initiations, whereas grooming gangs might target groups of teenagers together – because an adolescent is more likely to cooperate in a group setting, due to peer pressure or fear of missing out.

Grooming doesn’t happen overnight, though: it’s a process, and there are several stages. It’s a delicate subject – most won’t jump at the opportunity to learn about it, but the more we understand these behaviours and their perpetrators, the more adept we are at spotting them and stopping them from progressing further.

Here we unpack those stages, the tactics used; the giveaway red flag behaviours – all with the hope of combatting future cases of grooming and safeguarding vulnerable adults and children across the world from predatory behaviour.

Targeting the victim – The first stage of grooming

Groomers are calculated and often repeat offenders – they don’t want to get caught. Thus, before selecting their victims, abusers often scope out and observe possible ‘candidates’ and select them based on ease of access to them or their perceived vulnerability. Those who are unpopular, have family problems, who spend a lot of time alone or unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem, have physical or intellectual disabilities, or are already abuse survivors tend to be targeted.

I was very quiet and didn’t have many friends among the other girls, so I gravitated towards him.”

– Marie Claire

You know that saying about knowledge and power? At the first stage of grooming, the offender starts to acquire knowledge about the victim, then works out how to gain access.

For a long time, I thought of his sexual abuse as an impulse. Looking back, I can see that he planned his advances.”

– Toni

The inappropriate relationship

The concept of ‘power dynamics’ is often mentioned when discussing inappropriate relationships. In cases where the abuser is older, wealthier, or better connected, the power differential is one of the aspects of the relationship that increases the vulnerability of the victim. This is what is referred to as the inappropriate relationship model. In sporting or educational environments, for example, a mentor or coach has power due to their age, seniority in the establishment, their experience (education) and connections (status) within the sector.

Gaining the victim’s trust

For many abusers, establishing trust at this stage is key. They use the ‘flattery trick’ – offering gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that they have a caring relationship whilst simultaneously training them to keep the relationship secret.

He noticed I was off at sessions and kept pressing me to tell him why then eventually I told him the whole thing over messenger. He suggested we start meeting secretly for coffee to talk about things.”

– Marie Claire

Some relationships might start as what looks like a friendship. The relationship or “boyfriend” model refers to the type of grooming where young people are tricked into believing they have entered a loving relationship with another person.

Other tactics may fall under the party lifestyle model, inviting victims to parties in their local area and plying them with ‘treats’ (drugs or alcohol).

Fulfilling a need

The abuser seeks to fill a void in the person’s life, offering a listening ear. Perpetrator behaviour can also involve persuading the victim that the abuser alone can fulfil their need.

I started becoming more popular with the other girls since I was hanging out with Alex…I took pride in the small street credibility it gave me. People would come to hang out with us, but he would mostly ignore everyone else. It felt amazing and for the first time, I felt special.”

– Marie Claire

In some cases, the offender may use a familiar and fond activity as a way in. Writer, artist, mother and sexual abuse survivor Toni Tails outlines exactly this grooming tactic:

In the [adult] magazines were cartoons that he liked to read to me in the same way that he read me picture books from the library.”

– Toni

Isolating the victim

Isolation: a classic abuser technique. Abusers do this by putting themselves between the victim and their loved ones or caregivers. As a result, they may be reluctant to meet or speak to friends or family.

He became my closest confidante and I started to believe that he was the only person in the world who would ever truly understand me. I began to isolate myself from my other friends, who I started to see as less interesting.”

– Marie Claire

The abuser has demanded secrecy or convinced them that the other people in their life are not worthy of their attention by slandering them. There have also been known cases where the perpetrator has made themselves known to friends and family – deliberately presenting themselves as utterly charming. As a result, the victim may be met with disbelief or derision if they express their concerns.

He worked on causing a division between my mother and me. He said he didn’t want to hurt me, but he had to, or mama would leave him.”

– Toni

The whole aim, as social worker Lisa Ferentz is one of many to confirm, is to keep others from seeing what’s really going on:

When you are disconnected from other people, they can’t witness maltreatment and you can’t reach out to them for guidance or the resources you might need.”

– Lisa Ferentz

The end goal: abuse

At this stage, the abuse itself begins. In sexual abuse, this may involve rape or sexual assault. In radicalisation, it could be forced criminal activity – violence against others and/or yourself or smuggling drugs for example.

Sometimes the victim persuades themselves that the abuse is entirely normal, even desirable for the “benefits” it brings, with the price only apparent later. It may take years, perhaps decades for the victim to process what actually went on – for the realisation to dawn that, instead of partakers in a ‘special relationship’, they themselves were in fact victims of abuse.

It was shocking how quickly we pretended each time that it had never happened.”

– Marie Claire

The sixth and final stage: Maintaining control

Of all the 6 stages, this one is probably the most important as it is what allows the abuse to persist. Once the abuser has established their hold over the victim, they aim to maintain that level of control. Even storylines in soap operas have covered this, in fictionalised form. The offender uses the ‘consequences trick’, making threats to harm either the victim, their nearest and dearest or even, like Marie Claire describes, themselves.

He told me he wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t eating and that he had started smoking again. I felt like I needed to do this for him like I was repaying a debt to him for helping me through my lowest point.”

– Marie Claire

Where emotional blackmailing doesn’t work, some will give examples of previous violence to induce fear. And when violence doesn’t work, abusers will entrap victims with shame, threatening to share intimate pictures of their victims to family or even the internet.

In Sam’s case, she was drawn in with activities typically associated with the ‘high life’ and then, once dependent on the substances offered, felt like she had to continue coming back for more.

It was gradual. A glass of Champagne at a club, a sniff of coke…But, of course, the Champagne and drugs had to be paid for.”

– Sam

Online grooming

Online grooming is growing – a category of its own now the Internet has become such an integral part of society. You might hear of “catfishing”, where offenders pretend to be someone they’re not in order to gain access.

Offenders may spend time on a particular website, game, app, or forum where they know their victim likes to hang out. And social media is a particular danger area. And with the advent of some of the newer platforms, like TikTok, this time of grooming appears to be on the rise.

So how can we combat grooming?

The first step towards combating grooming is to combine everything we know, including all the 6 stages of grooming both adults and children as well as details of specialist help. Sometimes, those who have successfully escaped the cycle are willing to share their stories to help others: their courage is invaluable.

For all of us, we need to stay alert and take appropriate action, not only to raise awareness of grooming but ultimately, to keep vulnerable service users safe.

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