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Kimberly met her abusive partner when she was 18. She endured three years of verbal abuse and escalating violence before narrowly escaping with her life.
Marielle met her abusive husband at 19. He swept her off her feet, she says. But soon after they married, he began sexually abusing her on a near-daily basis.
Jennifer was only 17 when she met an older man who was immediately controlling and verbally abusive. He coerced her to marry him in her teens.
What Is Grooming?
“The hardest part for me was recognizing the abuse,” Jennifer says. “Being young, I didn’t understand what a toxic relationship this was.”
This is what abusers count on, in fact. Women ages 16 to 24 are the most at risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. Grooming, most often used in the context of the sexual abuse of a child by an adult, can also be a tactic of abusers who are looking for a partner they can control. They often target teens because minors are vulnerable, and abusers can more easily coerce them into advancing a relationship quickly. This can trap young survivors indefinitely, unaware until much later (or never at all) that what they’re being subjected to is abuse.
Signs of Grooming
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, groomers often follow similar patterns. Whether the goal is to sexually abuse or coerce into a relationship, the warning signs can be similar. Teens and their parents or caregivers, as well as teachers, coaches and other adults who work with young people should watch for the following:
- Isolation of a minor. Abusers will try to physically and emotionally separate minors from their protective adults. They’ll often look for opportunities to have contact with the minor alone.
- Keeping secrets. Abusers often share secrets with a minor to make them feel like they have a special and unique relationship.
- Gifts. Abusers may shower a minor with gifts, a type of love-bombing that can make the minor feel close to the groomer.
- Desensitization to touch. This is when an abuser will begin to touch a victim in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, tickling or wrestling. This touch will then escalate to more sexual forms, such as massages or showering together.
- Talking about sexual topics. Abusers may begin to talk about sexual topics with the minor in order to introduce the idea of sexual contact.
Social media can further complicate things when it comes to grooming minors. Many social media apps as well as online video games allow perpetrators to message potential victims, often times lying about who they are or their true intentions. Both boys and girls can be targeted. Last April, a 13-year-old Utah boy was abducted from his home and sexually assaulted by a 26-year-old man from Arizona who had been grooming him online for more than two months. The boy’s parents had tried to intervene when they discovered the man communicating with their son, taking away his phone and reporting the perpetrator to police, but the teen still found a way to speak to the man through Twitter via the family’s virtual reality headset. The teen was rescued a day after his abduction and the man was arrested.
“Somehow [the perpetrator] was able to make my son feel that he couldn’t talk to us about stuff, which is such a deviation from everything we’ve ever told our kids,” the boy’s mother told NBC News.
Parents should use their best discretion as to how much of an online footprint their teen is allowed and keep an open dialogue with teens about social media’s dangers.
How This Turns into an Abusive “Relationship”
So how does a sexual predator morph into a domestic abuser? Eileen Martin, LCSW, is a mental health therapist for the Center for Counseling and Healing. She’s also a survivor herself. Martin says she exclusively sees women and finds that those who were groomed by abusers share some similarities.
“A [survivor] comes in and has these pluses. They’re nurturing, loving and people-pleasing. An abuser often makes those pluses work for them,” says Martin.
Abusers who test the waters early with a minor and find that they’re agreeable to this older adult’s attention, will often exploit their vulnerabilities. Do they come from a tumultuous home life? The abuser will act as the caring adult the minor is craving. Does the minor crave validation–do they feel invisible or overlooked? The abuser will shower them with attention and praise.
“They figure all that out in the early stages to eventually exploit those things in order to harm that person,” says Martin.
Pretty soon, the minor finds themselves dependent on the abuser for emotional support but also perhaps financial support. They may not even realize that what started as a friendship is turning into a romantic relationship, even if they’re not ready. Sex becomes transactional. An abuser will trade their attention and affection for sexual acts by the minor.
And, as many parents of teens know, the more a parent pushes against a teen’s relationship, the more it can lead a teen to rebel and seek validation from their partner. Read, “When Your Teen is Dating an Abuser” for tips on how to intervene in a better way.
Martin’s Story of Being Groomed
Martin met the man that would become her abusive husband when she was just 17. He was 25.
“I was in a chaotic home. My mother was more abusive than my dad. I was very insecure and wanted to be loved.”
The man honed in on every aspect of Martin’s life, taking on almost a parent-like role, she remembers.
“He would ask me, ‘What are you studying? It’s really important to study and get good grades.’ It was purposeful and intentional,” she says. She had no point of reference for what a healthy relationship was and didn’t spot any red flags.
“He’d put me on a pedestal and tell me how wonderful I was. When you’re on that pedestal, there’s only one way to go and that’s down.”
She married him when she was 18 and was pregnant at 19. And soon, he began inflicting emotional, psychological and physical abuse on Martin. They had two more children together and Martin was trapped for 25 years, thinking she needed to stay to protect her kids. Her breaking point came when he locked Martin in the bedroom with her frantic daughter outside.
“My 16-year-old daughter was banging on the door and shouting, ‘Let her go!’” The moment changed Martin’s perspective. She began to Google things like, Am I crazy?, thinking the problem was her. It wasn’t. Her search led her to information about emotional and psychological abuse and she began to realize, as so many survivors do, that the abuse was not her fault, but his choice. She was essentially brainwashed.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about this and getting the word out about it. Young women, and even women my age, think the problem is them. They’ve been so trained to think the problem is them.”
It’s been 15 years since she escaped and started her life over. After experiencing how much counseling helped her in her healing process, Martin went back to school to become a counselor herself.
“We can be empowered, as survivors. We just need somebody that cares.”
Avoid the Grooming Abuser
Abusers can target anyone. They are cunning and manipulative and can target anyone—it’s not the victim’s fault. They can appear to be the most caring, kind and thoughtful individuals at first. They often don’t show their true, abusive colors until later.
But there are some things both teens and their trusted adults can do to lessen their changes of falling into a groomer’s trap.
- Listen to your gut. Whether you’re the one being targeted or you’re the parent of a teen, when it comes to individuals prominent in a minor’s life, never ignore the feeling that something is “off.” If in doubt, run your feelings past someone else for validation. Trained advocates are available 24/7 through helplines available at most domestic violence shelters. Find one near you here.
- Don’t be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. Girls and women have long been conditioned by society to be agreeable and polite, especially when it comes to adults older than them. This can place girls at high risk of being taken advantage of by abusers. Don’t be afraid to say no. Teach children that it’s OK to decline a hug or other physical contact from adults, including relatives.
- Pay attention and listen. If a teen is trying to tell you something, listen. Sit down, make eye contact and reflect back what they’re saying. “I hear that you’re feeling alone. Can you tell me more about that?” Don’t dismiss their complaints or minimize their emotions. Be the support they need so they don’t feel like they have to seek it out from someone dangerous.
- Talk about consent. Teach your kids early and often about healthy relationships and what they look like. Talk about consent, boundaries and their right to feel safe at all times. Sometimes, watching movies together (as long as age-appropriate) or reading the same books and discussing them can open the dialogue of what is and isn’t a healthy relationship.
- Set safety restrictions online. Don’t underestimate all the ways in which groomers can access minors through social media and video games. Even if teens don’t have their own computer or phone, they can go online at school or on a friend’s device. Talk to teens about things like what’s safe to share, how to enable privacy settings, sending photos (never to someone they don’t know), turning off geolocation and how to block someone. Parents and caregivers may want to consider using a tool like Google Family Link, Bark or Life 360 to help monitor their child’s online activity. See RAINN’s social media safety tips for more information.
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