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  • Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.

What Is Familial Sexual Grooming?

Understand how perpetrators manipulate families to gain access to children.

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  • Perpetrators of child sexual abuse may not only sexually groom the child but also their family.

  • Familial grooming involves the selection of a child due to family vulnerability and the development of trust.

  • Family grooming may be more common when the victim is a child as opposed to a teenager.

  • About two-thirds of all cases of child sexual abuse may involve familial sexual grooming.


Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious global problem. However, most CSA go undisclosed and undetected. One reason for this is that the perpetrator may use sexual grooming behaviors.


Sexual grooming is the deceptive process in which the perpetrator uses manipulative tactics and behaviors to sexually abuse a child while reducing the likelihood that the abuse will disclosed or detected by others. While most of the research on sexual grooming focuses on the behaviors and tactics directed at the minor, it is believed that perpetrators of CSA also engage in the sexual grooming of the minor's parent, guardians, and family—a phenomenon known as familial grooming.


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What Is Familial Sexual Grooming?

Parents, guardians, and families play an important role in protecting their children from CSA by providing guardianship and supervision. To get around this guardianship and gain access to the child, perpetrators may engage in what has been termed "familial grooming.


Familial grooming generally refers to the process by which a would-be perpetrator develops a close relationship with a potential victim's family so that they trust the perpetrator and allow them access to their child. For example, a coach could befriend a child's parents so they like and trust him. Consequently, they allow him to drive the child back and forth to practice when he offers to help, and they may allow the child to travel unaccompanied with the coach for away games when they cannot attend.


Perpetrators groom parents and guardians for two main reasons:


  1. To more frequently and easily access the child

  2. To minimize the likelihood of disclosure or discovery from others


Does the Child's Age Impact Familial Grooming?

The extent of familial grooming may differ based on the age of the child. For example, teenagers have more autonomy and independence outside of their family, and thus, the perpetrator may use text messaging or social media to contact them without their parents' knowledge. Our research shows that familial grooming may not be necessary to have contact with older victims.


What Familial Sexual Grooming Looks Like

There are two main areas in which a perpetrator may engage in familial grooming:


1. The perpetrator may seek to select a victim based on family vulnerabilities.


For instance, children may be targeted if they:


  • are not close to their parents

  • experienced neglect or abuse within the home

  • lack supervision

  • are psychologically vulnerable

Family vulnerabilities may include:


  • the presence of marital problems between parents

  • a parent with a medical illness

  • poor interpersonal relationships within the family

  • a single-parent household

2. Once a victim is selected, the perpetrator may seek to gain access to the child through developing a trusting relationship with the family. This may include forming a friendship or romantic relationship with the caregiver(s). Once the relationship has formed, the adult may use that trust to have access to the minor so that they can then emotionally and physically isolate the child from the family.


By using these tactics, the perpetrator can create situations in which they are alone with the child, such as taking them on overnight stays or outings without the suspicion of the parents and, in many instances, with parental consent. In cases where the perpetrator develops a romantic relationship with the parent or guardian, the perpetrator can now have unfettered access to the child within the home.


Suppose a parent, guardian, and family is groomed. In that case, this can let the perpetrator go forward with the next steps in the grooming process, which involve developing trust with the child and those around them and desensitizing the child to physical touch and sexual content.


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How Common Is Familial Sexual Grooming?

While no studies have explicitly studied familial grooming, research on tactics used by perpetrators of CSA suggests that in about two-thirds of the cases, perpetrators develop or exploit relationships with the family to get access to the minors. For example, one study of perpetrators of CSA found that two-thirds of perpetrators knew the victims through family, friends, or a caretaking role (e.g., babysitting).


Another study of survivors found that in more than two-thirds of the cases, the most frequent sexual grooming tactic used was the manipulation of the family in the sexual grooming process.


How Can Parents and Guardians Prevent Being Groomed?

This is a tricky question because most people who befriend parents or guardians seek to do so because they genuinely care for them and their children. However, parents should be made aware that there are, unfortunately, some people with nefarious intent. Thus, it is important to understand how stereotypes and biases can impact judgment.


One of the goals of developing this trusting relationship with parents or guardians is to prevent detection. Perpetrators rely on what is called cognitive dis­sonance—when someone's behavior does not match the image of them that you have in your head —you discount or excuse away the behavior.


For example, suppose you see a long-time family friend hugging your child a little too long. In that case, you may tell yourself that the individual just cares about your child and is showing affection and not identifying the prolonged hug as a potential red flag for sexual grooming behavior.


Thus, understanding how these types of biases develop can help parents and guardians look at the behavior of those around their child more objectively and follow up on any behavior that may be indicative of sexual grooming.


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Also, know that there is no profile of who may be a sex offender. Thus, just because someone seems like a nice guy, is a pillar of the community, is a woman, or a minor does not mean that they cannot be engaging in CSA. Make sure to look at their behavior and your child's reactions to them independently of their characteristics and relationship with your family.


Elizabeth Jeglic, Ph.D., - Website -

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