5 Grooming Signs to Watch for During Family Holiday Gatherings

The topic of child sexual abuse is not an easy subject to digest or discuss by any means. However, it must be at the forefront of our minds as parents and guardians, especially during the holiday season. To understand the gravity of this issue, consider the following statistics: 

  • 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18
  • 91% of child sexual abuse victims personally know their abuser
  • 68% of child sexual abuse victims undergo abuse by a family member

While most children welcome the holidays with open arms, many nervously wait in anticipation of the horrors they may soon endure by a “trusted” relative or family friend. Feelings of anxiety and stress may overwhelm their lives due to a previous experience with an older cousin, a parent’s coworker, or a distant relative that pushed physical, emotional, or even sexual boundaries.

Parents, please know that my words are not meant to scare you but to help and encourage you to be on guard. The harsh reality is that many victims of abuse personally know their abuser. Therefore, my hope is to simply educate you about the problem and empower you to have open and honest conversations with your children. The worst thing we can do as parents is to assume that our children could never be put in a position to experience abuse, especially by a loved one or friend.

As the holiday season is in full swing, I believe parents need to be aware of the possible risks children face as they travel for the holidays and time spent with family members and friends. By doing so, you will be more aware and ready to spot the signs of child abuse and abusers’ common tactics.

Watch for the Warning Signs of “Grooming”

Many predators use the process of “grooming” to target their victims while gaining the approval of their victim’s parents. There are five common strategies abusers use to gain the trust and loyalty of children. Parents and guardians should consider the following red flags associated with “grooming:”

1. Investment and Favoritism

Over-investment and favoritism are both common “grooming” strategies. Predators often become fixated on their victims and seek opportunities to be involved in every aspect of their lives. If someone appears to be obsessive over a single child, this is a major red flag.

2. Gifts and Compliments

Showering children with gifts and compliments is another common technique. Often, predators will flatter their victims with gifts, both big and small items, to gain their trust and obedience. If parents notice their children are receiving an excessive number of gifts and special items, they should investigate the situation and uncover where these gifts are coming from.

3. Isolation

Predators use the tactic of isolation to reinforce their relationship with their victims, making them feel safe and understood by their abuser. They will often look for opportunities to be alone with a child and take “special” trips. Predators will also reassure them by saying, “I’m the only one who understands you,” or “your parents don’t care for you like I do.” These individuals will do everything in their power to undermine the authority and love of a parent.

4. Secrets

A safe adult will never ask a child to keep an unsafe secret. Teaching children the difference between safe and unsafe secrets is paramount to keeping them safe. A “safe” secret may also be known as a surprise, something that eventually parents will find out about and be happy about when they do (i.e., a surprise birthday party). An unsafe secret is something that may make the child feel “icky” or uncomfortable (i.e., an adult showing a child sexual images on their phone and making them promise not to tell anyone). Parents should consistently reinforce that children will never be in trouble for telling them any secrets or things that feel difficult or uncomfortable to share.

5. Crossing Boundaries

Finally, one of the most serious “red flags” of abuse is when adults or other children push physical and sexual boundaries with a child. This can range from innocent touches on the shoulder to the “accidental” touching of private parts. Parents should have conversations with children regarding what parts of the body are safe zones and what are not. This way, if anyone crosses a line or makes them feel uncomfortable, they will have the confidence to tell an adult. Remind them that they are the boss of their body and are not required to do anything they are uncomfortable with, even if that means not giving hugs to family members.

Asking the Right Questions

The truth is that even the best parents can miss the signs of sexual abuse by not asking the right questions. Therefore, invite your children to an open dialogue by asking the following questions after they have spent an extended amount of time under someone else’s supervision or at a holiday gathering:

-What was the highlight of your day?

-What was your least favorite part of your day?

-With whom did you spend the most time?

-Did you feel safe?

-Was there any time that you felt unsafe?

-Is there anything else you would like to share?

To prevent child sexual abuse from happening, parents should also establish strong boundaries in the home, so their children do not find themselves in a position to experience abuse behind closed doors. Some boundaries could include keeping doors open when playing with other children or using the buddy system when going somewhere with another adult. In addition, parents should consider limiting screen time and monitoring their children’s devices.

It’s easy to think, “this couldn’t happen to my child.” I want to urge parents that child sexual abuse can happen within any family. This heartbreaking issue crosses cultural and ethnic lines, socioeconomic levels, and religious groups and denominations.

Even amongst the most magical times of the year, the holidays remind us that predators exist in our communities, churches, and schools and can even be amongst our own families. Many times they have a personal relationship established with their victim. As parents, we must be vigilant. Above all else, we must be willing to talk with our children about the dangers that exist in our world, both online and in our day-to-day lives.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fiorigianluigi

Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good is the founder and CEO of The Foundation United, a catalytic platform to end sexual exploitation and trafficking through systemic change. Fisher Good is a passionate pioneer and inspirational thought leader with a desire to expose the root issue behind sex trafficking -- childhood sexual abuse. Her book “Groomed” (HarperCollins, 2020) recounts her own story of loss, abuse, and triumph. Statistics and resources quoted above can be accessed at https://www.thefoundationunited.com/statsandresources.


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