Distinguishing Wholesome Relationship Development from Grooming

In years past, it was common for the focus of sexual abuse prevention efforts to be on “strong screening” and choosing “safe” adults to work with children. However, both the experiences of child-serving organizations and the recent findings of empirical research have demonstrated that the characteristics and psychological profiles of adults who sexually abuse do not differ significantly or predictably from adults who do not abuse children.

As a result of this reality, current best practices require schools to develop systems for monitoring and supervising that allow others to detect the subtle distinctions of behavior that differentiate adults who seek sexual contact with children and young people from those who are motivated to work with children for altruistic and otherwise wholesome reasons. Once the supervision system is in place, it is necessary to know what kinds of behaviors should trigger an intervention.

Relational Sexual Offenders Violate Boundaries

The majority of sexual offenses that occur in schools, churches, and youth development programs are relational in nature, and not violent. Whether a relational sexual offender has abused many times in the past, or an adult who is attracted to children is moving down the path to abuse for the first time, boundary violations consistently occur before moving to overt acts of abuse. During the phase of boundary violations that is prior to sexual contact, others who observe the behaviors have an opportunity to interrupt the progression of behavior which is typically called “grooming.” Grooming is the process of preparing a child or young person to experience relational sexual abuse without strong resistance or subsequent disclosure. It is a pattern of boundary violations intended to increase closeness, dependency, involvement and trust between the adult and the child he or she is targeting.

Using a framework that identifies three types of boundaries, it is possible to identify specific patterns of behavior used by sexual abusers that allow us to distinguish grooming from wholesome relationship development.

Physical boundary violations. Physical boundary violations involve desensitizing a child or young person to being touched so that when the touch becomes clearly sexual, it will represent an incremental increase of contact, rather than an abrupt change in behavior. The most common physical boundary violations observed in schools have been:

  • Shoulder or neck massages (adult to a student or student to adult).
  • Wrestling or roughhousing with a student.
  • Tickling or poking a student in the side.
  • Placing a hand on a student’s leg.
  • Lengthy hugs or holding a student in an embrace.

Emotional boundary violations. Emotional boundary violations involve a process of intensifying the closeness between the adult and child through increased disclosure, greater expectations for time spent together, and creating a child’s sense of dependency on the adult for approval, friendship, and affection. Emotional grooming may be at the core of a relational abuser’s methodology for preventing a child from disclosing because closeness in the relationship gives the child his or her own reasons for keeping the behaviors secret and giving the abuser further access. The most common emotional violations in cases that occur in schools have been:

  • Possessiveness.
  • Private texting.
  • Flirting with students.
  • Disclosing private information to students.
  • Expecting students to be emotionally supportive.
  • Demanding students reveal private information.

Behavioral boundary violations. Behavioral boundary violations involve an adult engaging a child in behavior that is considered “against the rules.” The rules that are broken may be established by the child’s parents, the law, the school or agency where the adult and child met each other, or may violate the rules a child has set for himself or herself. The purpose of violating a child’s behavioral boundaries is to create a context for the relationship that is by its very nature “secret.” Once a child is keeping an adult’s secrets and an adult is keeping a child’s secrets, it becomes much more difficult for the child to reveal that improper contact or the beginnings of sexual abuse have occurred.

Research regarding the progression of grooming, both online and in person, show that one of the first boundary violations to occur in many cases is the introduction of inappropriate sexual content to conversations between adults and children or young people. This is a behavioral boundary violation that involves an adult talking about sexual attraction, masturbation, pornography, or having a personal history of engaging in a particular type of sexual behavior. If the adult can succeed in influencing the child to discuss these topics, he or she may feel it is “safe” to continue on the path of grooming the child for physical contact. Other behavioral boundary violations that are common in schools have been:

  • Treating one student as a favorite and being more lenient with that student.
  • Cursing in the presence of a student or allowing the student to curse.
  • Telling inappropriate jokes to students or in the presence of students.
  • Talking negatively about other adults in the student’s life, including parents.
  • Allowing or encouraging a child to look at pornography.
  • Allowing or encouraging a child to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use drugs.

Once boundary violations are known, pro-active investigation and intervention are absolutely essential next steps. Otherwise we are counting on an adult who has already violated boundaries to voluntarily desist from the behaviors and manage his or her own risk. Whether we are required to report to authorities, conduct an internal investigation, or use administrative authority, current standards of care require us to do far more than just wait.