What are some warning signs of sexual abuse or grooming? This is what the experts say

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It’s not lost on parents that the manipulative behaviors perpetrators use to set children up for sexual abuse are designed to be subtle and often appear innocent.

According to child advocate Janna Estep-Jordan, what many may not realize is that in these unsettling situations, perpetrators are also working the parents, too.

“Perpetrators, they groom a child, but they groom a family as well,” said Estep-Jordan, director of operations and prevention education with Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, an advocacy group that makes the prevention of abuse and neglect of Kentucky’s children its mission.

Discerning between sexually-motivated manipulation and normal child-adult interactions can be difficult at times, as the National Children’s Advocacy Center points out.

So how do you tell the difference between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

Using a resource from the National Children’s Advocacy Center and Jordan’s own insights into the issue, we’ve put together this guide to some red flags and what to watch out for.

According to Jordan, the takeaway is to look at the big picture and the totality of the circumstances. So if you recognize several of these red flags, it may be a sign something is wrong and it’s time to take action.

Behaviors to watch out for from adults

  • Gradually pushing or crossing physical boundaries. According to Jordan, this can start off as playful or affectionate behaviors from adults toward children, like back or shoulder rubs, tussling or wrestling — especially when these behaviors take place around other people. Physical grooming often involves desensitization to touch, with escalating levels of physical contact meant to chip away at that boundary.

  • Treating a child as if they’re an adult. This behavior often begins with humor: the abuser will tell a risque joke to the child with the aim of getting them slowly acclimated to adult topics. If the tactic backfires, the abuser can fall back on gaslighting: “It’s just a joke” or “Don’t be so sensitive.”

  • Other children will know something is up. According to Jordan, parents can and should be comfortable checking in with other children who share the same friend group as the child they suspect is being abused. Ask them how the child in question is doing and let them know you’re there to offer your support if something’s not quite right.

Behaviors to watch out for in children

If the child is of a younger age, Jordan said they may have an age-inappropriate knowledge about sexual relationships.

A potential red flag related to this includes children acting out sexual behaviors or recruiting their peers to do the same, Jordan said.

The key here is the knowledge of something that a child of that particular age wouldn’t typically know.

This isn’t to say a child should have no knowledge whatsoever of sex. Jordan advocates for children to be equipped with an age-appropriate sexual education so they can be aware of encroachments on their boundaries by adults.

This education allows them to set boundaries for themselves and understand what normal behavior from adults is, she said.

“That’s empowering them,” Jordan said.

How and when to report suspected abuse

Under Kentucky state law, anyone is required to make a report when they suspect a child is a victim of abuse or neglect, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Individuals can make a report to the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services by calling 1-877-595-2331. Staff are available to take calls 24/7, including weekends and holidays.

When in doubt, it’s best to make the report and express your concerns. When making a report of suspected abuse or neglect to DCBS, you can remain anonymous but you will have to explain your connection to the situation.

If you suspect the child is in imminent danger, you should call 911.