Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What is "Grooming"?

You may have heard the word “grooming” used in sex abuse cases, and thought that it was an odd phrase.

Social animals like dogs and monkeys groom each other to cement social relationships. When we groom our animal companions, they show us greater affection, and become more closely attached to us.  This happens with humans as well.  As many comedians have noted, people become so greatly attached to their estheticians and hairdressers that they actually feel guilty if they receive those grooming services from another person. One of the most iconic images of mother-daughter bonding is the mother brushing and fixing her daughter’s hair.

Understanding this helps us understand why “grooming” is the right word for the activities that abusers use to cement their relationships with their victims. Of course, these activities are not usually LITERALLY grooming activities, but are nontheless aimed at developing emotional intimacy.

Some examples are:
  • Gift giving
  • Spending time
  • Showing concern/understanding
  • Indulging in fun or attractive activities together
  • Affectionate touching
You might notice that none of the activities listed above seem particularly inappropriate or harmfull, and at appropriate levels, they are not.

The harm comes when they are used to break down healthy personal boundaries, and eventually create a coersive situation that the victim finds confusing and scary and does not know how to detach from.

In the situation where a predator is "grooming" a potential victim, these activities will tend to become increasingly excessive for their expected role in the child's life, increasingly exlusive, the relationship may begin to replace or strain other relationships, and the interaction will become increasingly intimate and emotionally intense. If the child feels responsibility and shame, it takes a lot of trust to overcome the barrier to reporting.

Grooming activites can take a darker turn after the child feels the desire to keep secrets from other children and adults about the relationship, the "gifts" can become items like alcohol, drugs, or pornography or other forbidden items. The focus of the activities becomes the gratification of the predator's needs, and the touching becomes intimate and exploitive.

There are several reasons why predators invest the time and energy into grooming:
  • It reduces the risk that the victim will resist the abuse.
  • It reduces the risk that the victim will report them.
  • It reduces the risk that others will believe the victim if they report.
  • It allows them to convince themselves that their victims are willing partners.
  • Some predators get more of their sense of reward and arousal from the grooming stage than from the victimization of their targets.

Grooming can occur in the victim’s home, in school, in social activities, online, or many other places. It is the process of gaining access to the victim, and gaining the trust, affection and confidence of the victim and the victim’s support network. The first sign of it is often that feeling of confusion about how to respond to inappropriate behavior.  Teaching our kids to respond appropriately to that feeling, and to seek help can go a long way to protecting them from abuse.

Now that we have some idea of what grooming is, and why predators do it, how do we recognize it, and how do we protect our children and ourselves?

Practice and teach maintenance of personal boundaries

Be wary of people who don’t respect boundaries, and teach children to recognize them and seek help dealing with them. Grooming in its early stages involves attempts to change the roles of the predator and their target, to create a sense of closeness and co-conspiracy in breaking these boundaries. This grooms the victim in part by making them feel special and exclusive, and by also getting them to think of themselves as a participant in the relationship. It also grooms the victim’s support system to ignore signs of abuse later on, or to attribute it to other causes.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about people who do not understand boundaries, though.

We all know that awkward person who just blurts out the “overshare”, or who hugs at times that don’t seem to call for a hug, or oversteps boundaries in giving and asking for advice or council. 

Social awkwardness can be the result of medical or developmental conditions, or a deprived upbringing that prevent some people from understanding boundaries on an intuitive level, and I certainly do not want to give you the impression that they are predators. These people long for engagement, and just don’t know how to do it properly. In fact, it causes them to be at a much higher risk for victimization themselves, especially as children.  

Just because they don’t have an intuitive sense of boundaries, however, does not mean they cannot learn the rules of social interaction on an intellectual level.

If they are informed gently and firmly that they have violated a social boundary, they will benefit from that information (no matter how difficult it is for you to deliver it). It is not unkind to tell them that you are uncomfortable, and why.

Of course, predators know what they are doing.  They create awkward situations because they are pushing the relationship out of accepted and comfortable boundaries. One small step at a time, they gain a more central position in the life of the child, and often, in the social support network for that child. We want to be careful about misrepresenting and stigmatizing people who are genuinely awkward, and at the same time recognize the importance of maintianing our right to determine the level of intimacy and engagement we will accept from others.

Regardless of the reason someone over-steps, it is your right to re-assert your boundaries, and insist that they be respected. Modeling this boundary maintenance for your children, and explaining it to them at an age-appropriate level is an extremely effective deterrent. If your children understand that maintenance of appropriate roles and boundaries is important, and that you are willing and able to help them; they will come to you for help and advice when they feel confused.

It also helps kids to see that these boundaries can be maintained in a way that is healthy and effective, because the children often know and like the person who is acting inappropriately.  They don’t want anything bad to happen to the other person; they just want help dealing with the inappropriate behavior. So if they know that you will not fly off the handle, and trust you to do only what is necessary to deal with the situation, they will be more likely to come to you.

If you have concerns about the behavior, especially if the person does not respond to assertions of personal boundaries, or to reminders of the appropriate limits of their role in your child's life, it is very important to report it to the proper authorities, and to talk to your child about the fact that it was necessary to protect them and other children, and to get the offending person the help that they need.

 If you need help deciding who to report to, you can call Missing Children Minnesota (612) 334-9449 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-THE-LOST) for referrals and resources.
Encourage your children to create, explore, take on appropriate risk and responsibility and seek rewards in appropriate ways.

Children are compelled to create, explore, take risks, assume responsibility, and seek rewards.  If, as trusted adults, we shut them down with “that’s too hard for you” or “that’s too dangerous”, we not only erode our status as trusted adults, and block them from a pathway to build self-esteem, but we open the door for anyone else who is willing to direct that youthful energy and drive for exploration.

As adults, though, it is so much easier to just say “no”, especially to some of the outrageous schemes that our kids come up with.

But behind every wild scheme that pops into your child’s head is a goal to be met, and a question to be answered. It is probably a goal and a question that the child doesn’t fully understand themselves.

 The desire to build a jump for their bicycle might be more a desire to know “What would happen if?” and be answered with permission to build miniature jumps and explore how a hot wheels car manages with various designs, an activity that could very well lead to a science fair ribbon later on.

Or the goal might be the desire to feel that sense of weightless flight, in which case allowing them to have a turn on one of those giant trampoline-harness contraptions at the county fair might be in order. Sure, it is still risky, but less risky than them sneaking off to try their luck with a child’s sense of structural design, catch-as-catch-can materials, and no adult guidance.

As you spend years answering your children with “hmmm…lets’ spend a little time imagining how that would work” or “what do you imagine it would feel like to do that?” or “What made you think of that?” rather than “no”, you are helping them build confidence in you and in themselves.  You are teaching them to build the affirmations and connections and experiences to which a predators grooming activities offer false short-cuts.  And you are setting yourself up as the go-to person for advice on how to deal with difficulties.
Teach small kids the safety rules, and practice them with the "What if game"!
  • If anyone (even someone you know and trust) tries to give you something, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN right away to the person who is taking care of you and ask if it is OK.
  • If anyone (Even someone you know and trust) wants you to go somewhere with them, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN right away to the person who is taking care of you, and ask if it is OK.
  • If anyone but the person taking care of you asks for your help, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN back to the person taking care of you, and ask if it's OK.
  • Anywhere your swimsuit covers is private, and nobody should touch you there unless you are hurt there or have a mess that you need help with. If an adult helps you, there should be another adult there too, and you should not have to keep it a secret.
  • ALL touch has to be OK with BOTH people. You can say "no".  You don't need a reason. Other people can say "no" to touch from you, and you should listen to them.

Nothing we do can protect our children 100% from what is out there, but these three steps are a very good start to reducing the effect of “grooming” on your children.

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