In the spotlight: child sexual abuse - grooming


Being aware of the different forms of child abuse can help us understand how to better protect children and young people from harm.

This article focuses on grooming as a form of child sexual abuse. Grooming, like all forms of child abuse, can have a devastating, long-term impact on a child or young person.

No matter what has happened, or how it happened, child sexual abuse is never a child or young person’s fault.

‘People who sexually abuse children are solely and fully responsible for their actions’ - National Office for Child Safety.

What is grooming?

Grooming, as referenced in this article, is when an adult prepares a child or young person for sexual abuse at a later time, whether that sexual abuse actually happens or not. This might involve the use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques to build a relationship or emotional connection with the child, establish secrecy, and reduce the likelihood of being reported.

People who groom children create the impression that they are trustworthy and may pressure a child or young person to prevent them telling people what is happening to them. They may seek to isolate the child or alienate them from others, creating a barrier between the child and adults they might otherwise talk to about the abuse or who might see that something is wrong.

This behaviour can occur in person, online, or a combination of both.

It may not only be the child or young person who is groomed. People who groom children may also groom the organisation they are involved with or individuals around the child, like staff and volunteers, as well as parents and carers. They do this to be seen as safe and trustworthy and have their behaviour viewed as normal.

There is no typical type of person who sexually abuses children and young people. Research tells us that most children or young people know their abuser prior to the abuse occurring.

To gain access to a child or young person, a person seeking to groom a child may:

  • identify children or young people who may be isolated or vulnerable
  • offer to take the child to activities (such as sports) or babysit
  • offer to mentor or coach the child individually
  • buy gifts or do things for the family/carer
  • compliment the family and parenting.

People who groom children and young people can silence a child or young person by:

  • telling the child it’s their fault and they will get in trouble
  • making it difficult for the child to let someone know
  • telling the child no one will believe them
  • normalising overly intimate contact with the child or young person
  • threatening the child or young person.

Recognising the signs

The tactics used by people who groom children are often complex and gradual which is why recognising the signs can be difficult. Grooming behaviours are not always explicitly sexual or abusive. In some cases, they may appear to be 'normal' caring behaviours. The main difference between grooming behaviour and acceptable caring behaviours is the motivation behind them.

Children and young people may not tell you directly that someone is making them feel uncomfortable, or that they have been sexually abused. That’s why it’s important to look out for signs of grooming such as:

  • having unexplained gifts or money and not wanting to talk about where they came from
  • being secretive - not wanting to talk about what they’ve been doing
  • getting lots of messages from someone they only know online
  • spending less time with friends or changing friendship groups suddenly
  • unexplained sexual knowledge or access to drugs or alcohol
  • developing an unusually close connection with an older person
  • not wanting others around when they’re with particular friends or adults.

More information about recognising the signs of grooming can be found on the Raising Children Network website.

Grooming can be a sexual offence and is reportable conduct

Grooming for sexual conduct with a child under the age of 16 years is a criminal offence. The maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment reflects the seriousness of the crime.

Grooming may also be sexual misconduct  or a sexual offence under the Reportable Conduct Scheme (the Scheme). This means that organisations that provide services or facilities to children that are subject to the Scheme must report allegations of grooming by their workers or volunteers to the Commission for Children and Young People (the Commission) and allegations must be investigated. This applies to organisations like schools, early years services, religious organisations, disability and mental health services, and overnight camps, amongst others. Find out which organisations are subject to the Scheme.

What can you do?

If you think a crime has been committed, or if you think a child is in immediate risk of harm, contact Victoria Police on triple zero (000).

If you have concerns about the behaviour of an adult within an organisation who engages with children and young people, you can tell the head of the organisation, their dedicated child safety staff member, or you can contact the Commission. Until you can find out more, consider what can be done to keep the child or young person away from the adult you’re concerned about or take other action to make sure they are safe.

You can also contact the Commission if you are concerned that the organisation has not taken concerns about the adult’s behaviour seriously.

Find out more

There are a range of resources available that further explore the topic of grooming, including: 

  • Information available on the Bravehearts website.
  • A fact sheet produced for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, that includes information on what parents and carers can do to protect children and young people.
  • The eSafety Commissioner’s resource Unwanted contact and grooming is a guide for parents and carers to understand and respond to grooming.
  • The Raising Children Network has published information suitable for children and young people about recognising the signs of grooming.
  • The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation’s website and fact sheets explain what online child sexual exploitation is and signs to look out for.
  • The Commission’s Guide for creating a Child Safe Organisation will help you implement the Child Safe Standards and prevent child abuse.

You can contact the Commission to find out more about the Reportable Conduct Scheme or Child Safe Standards, to talk through issues of concern, or to make a notification.