Skip to content.

Grooming: recognising the signs


What is grooming?

Grooming is a process that "involves the offender building a relationship with a child, and sometimes with their wider family, gaining their trust and a position of power over the child, in preparation for abuse."

(CEOP, 2022)

Grooming can happen anywhere, including:

  • online
  • in organisations
  • in public spaces (also known as street grooming)

(McAlinden, 2012).

Children and young people can be groomed by a stranger or by someone they know – such as a family member, friend or professional. The age gap between a child and their groomer can be relatively small (NSPCC and O2, 2016).

Grooming techniques can be used to prepare children for sexual abuse and exploitationradicalisation (Department for Education (DfE), 2017) or criminal exploitation (Children's Commissioner, 2019).

> Learn more about teaching children about healthy relationships


Recognising that a child is being groomed

It's rare for a child to tell an adult about being groomed.

Children may not feel able to seek help because they:

  • are unaware that they're being groomed
  • believe they are in a caring relationship and are worried about jeopardising it
  • are scared of what the groomer will do if they speak out
  • don't want to get the groomer in trouble
  • blame themselves for getting involved in the relationship
  • are ashamed or worried about sharing what’s happened to them with other people.

If a child does speak out, you should reassure them that they’ve done the right thing in telling you, and that what’s happening to them is not their fault.

  • See our resources to help adults respond to children disclosing abuse

Which signs should I look out for?

Professionals should be aware of and able to recognise signs that a child may be being groomed.

Signs a child is being groomed include:

  • sudden changes in behaviour, such as spending more or less time online
  • spending more time away or going missing from home or school
  • being secretive about how they’re spending their time, including when using online devices
  • having unexplained gifts, big or small
  • misusing alcohol and/or drugs
  • having a friendship or relationship with a much older person
  • developing sexual health problems
  • using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • seeming upset or withdrawn
  • mental health problems

(Rigg and Phippen, 2016, Metropolitan Police, 2022).

Signs of grooming can easily be mistaken for 'typical' teenage behaviour, but you may notice unexplained changes in behaviour or personality or inappropriate behaviour for their age.

How it happens

Grooming behaviours

Groomers typically use certain patterns of behaviour to lead a child to believe that what is happening is normal, or to make the child feel trapped. The grooming relationship can move quickly from being something that seems to have positive benefits for the child to being very frightening and isolating.

Gaining trust

A groomer hides their true intentions and over time "gains the child’s trust and confidence" in order to abuse them (Sexual Offences Act 2003: explanatory notes). The child or young person is conditioned to respect, trust and love their groomer. They may not understand they are being groomed because they consider their groomer to be a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

The groomer may also work to gain the trust of a whole family, to allow them to be left alone with a child. If the groomer works with children they may use similar tactics with their colleagues.

Groomers gain trust by:

  • pretending to be someone they’re not, for example saying they are the same age as the child online
  • offering advice or understanding
  • buying gifts
  • giving the child attention
  • using their professional position or reputation
  • taking the child on trips, outings or holidays

(Rigg and Phippen, 2016).

Gaining power

Once they’ve established trust groomers will exploit the relationship by isolating the child from friends or family and making the child feel dependent on them. Groomers will use power and control to make a child believe they have no choice but to do what the groomer wants.


Groomers may introduce 'secrets' as a way to control or frighten the child. Sometimes they will blackmail the child or make them feel ashamed or guilty to stop them telling anyone about the abuse.


Groomers use a range of strategies to entrap a child and manipulate them. They present themselves as approachable, likeable and having shared interests with the child they are targeting.

Our Childline service offers support and advice to children and young people who have been groomed. One young person told us about how a manager of an online game had used the offer of making him a moderator as part of the grooming process.

"At first I thought it was cool this manager was giving me extra responsibility on the server. They told me how much they trusted me which made me feel important. Lately though things have got a bit weird, like they say 'I love you' a lot - they say it so much that it makes me feel like I have to say it back. We’ve also been watching movies together, and most of the stuff they want to watch is explicit and meant for adults."

Childline counselling session with a boy aged 13

Groomers will test a child’s compliance by persuading them to carry out inappropriate or abusive activities. They use tactics such as reverse psychology (for example, "I’m not sure about this, I think you might be too young") or strategic withdrawal (such as, "It was just an idea, it’s completely up to you") which give the child the impression they are in control of the situation (Lorenzo-Dus, Izura and Perez-Tattam, 2016).

Online grooming

Groomers can use social media, instant messaging apps or online gaming platforms to connect with a young person or child. It's easy for groomers to hide their identity online – they may pretend to be younger than they are, and then chat and become 'friends' with children.

Groomers can use multiple online platforms to contact the same child. They can spend time learning about a young person’s interests from their online profiles and posts, and then use this knowledge to help them build up a relationship. Then, once a relationship has been established, they might encourage the child to communicate using a private or encrypted messaging service (NSPCC 2020, IICSA, 2020).

Groomers may look for:

  • usernames or comments that are flirtatious or have a sexual meaning
  • public comments that suggest a child has low self-esteem or is vulnerable.

However, groomers don't always target a particular child. Sometimes they'll send messages to hundreds of young people and wait to see who responds.

The online environment makes it easier for groomers to target several children at once (Lorenzo-Dus, Izura and Perez-Tattam, 2016). It can also make the grooming process much quicker (CEOP, 2013; Lorenzo-Dus and Izura, 2017).

Groomers don't need to meet children in real life to abuse them. After making online contact, a groomer may convince a child to meet in person. However, groomers can also sexually exploit children and young people by persuading them to take part in online sexual activity (IICSA, 2020). The Internet Watch Foundation found that over 70% of identified child sexual abuse images in 2021 were self-generated (IWF, 2022).

Social media and other online platforms are also used to groom children to involve them in criminal exploitation, for example county lines (Children's Society, 2019).

Speaking out

Speaking out about grooming

It’s rare for a child to tell an adult about being groomed. This means we don't know how common grooming is.

Children may not speak out because they’re:

  • ashamed
  • feeling guilty
  • unaware that they're being abused
  • believe they are in a relationship with a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’.

The grooming relationship can move quickly from being something that seems to have positive benefits for the child to being very frightening and isolating. Initially the child or young person is conditioned to respect, trust and love their groomer. They may not understand they are being groomed because they consider their groomer to be their boyfriend or girlfriend (Coffey et al, 2014).

The child may be uncomfortable with what they are being asked to do but not feel able to say no or seek help because they:

  • are worried about jeopardising the relationship if they don’t give consent
  • are scared of what the groomer will do if they speak out or refuse to comply
  • don't want to get the groomer in trouble
  • blame themselves for getting involved in the relationship
  • are ashamed of sharing sexual details with other people.
Children at risk

What makes children more vulnerable to grooming?

Grooming can affect any child regardless of age, gender, race or socio-economic background.

However, children who may be particularly vulnerable include:

  • looked after children and children known to social care
  • children who are exploring their sexuality and identity online
  • those with special educational needs and learning difficulties (SEND), for example those who experience social and communication difficulties
  • children with low self esteem and confidence (those who might be lacking and seeking validation)
  • children who have limited awareness about online risks 
  • those whose online activity isn't appropriately supervised or monitored
  • children who aren't in mainstream education, for example due to school exclusion.

(Coffey and Lloyd, 2014; DfE, 2017; Children's Society, 2019).

Children who contacted Childline about online sexual abuse also talked about:

  • difficulties forming healthy relationships and trusting people
  • struggling with eating and sleeping
  • having difficulty concentrating at school
  • experiencing mental health issues including suicidal thoughts
  • feeling frightened of using online platforms
  • feeling lonely, ashamed and embarrassed

(NSPCC, 2020).

Those who have been groomed sometimes say their groomer was the first person who really seemed to understand and care about these issues (NSPCC and O2, 2016). As with any form of abuse, children who are disabled (Jones et al, 2012) and those who have already experienced abuse (Finkelhor, Ormrod and Turner, 2007) are particularly vulnerable to grooming.

Protecting children

Protecting children

Raising awareness

Communities can be the strongest allies in protecting children from grooming (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

It's important for all professionals working with children to be aware of:

  • what grooming is
  • signs of grooming displayed by children
  • typical grooming behaviours.

It's also important that professionals are aware of, and know how to respond to, the different types of abuse and exploitation grooming can lead to, including:

Empowering children

Professionals working with children and young people should help empower them to recognise and speak out about abuse. This includes:

  • teaching children and young people about healthy relationships
  • helping children and young people develop the awareness and skills needed to keep safe online
  • helping children to identify the safe people and places they are happy to go to for support.

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships in schools

> Find out more about our Talk Relationships service

> Find out how to support children to stay safe online


References and resources


All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group (2013) Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who are at risk of abuse through sexual exploitation (PDF). [Cardiff]: All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2022) What is sexual grooming? [Accessed 01/09/2022].

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) (2013) Threat assessment of child sexual exploitation and abuse (PDF). London: CEOP.

Children's Commissioner for England (2019) Keeping kids safe (PDF). London: Children's Commissioner for England.

Children's Society (2019) Counting lives: responding to children who are criminally exploited (PDF). [Accessed 01/09/2022]

Coffey, A. and Lloyd, T. (2014) Real voices: child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester. [Manchester]: Greater Manchester Police Force.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017) Safeguarding and radicalisation (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. K. and Turner, H. A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child Abuse and Neglect, 31(5): 479-502.

Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (2020) The internet: investigation report. London: Crown Copyright.

Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) (2022) IWF annual report 2021. [Accessed 20/12/2022]

Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet 380(9845): 899-907.

Lorenzo-Dus, N., Izura, C. and Perez-Tattam, R. (2016) Understanding grooming discourse in computer-mediated environments. Discourse, Context and Media, 12: 440-450.

Lorenzo-Dus, N. and Izura, C. (2017) "Cause ur special": understanding trust and complimenting behaviour in online grooming discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 112: 68-82.

Metropolitan Police (2022) Advice and information: grooming. [Accessed 01/09/2022].

McAlinden, A. (2012) 'Grooming' and the sexual abuse of children: institutional, internet, and familial dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NSPCC (2020) The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on child welfare: online abuse (PDF). London: NSPCC

NSPCC and O2 (2016) “What should I do?”: NSPCC helplines: responding to children’s and parents’ concerns about sexual content online (PDF). [London]: NSPCC.

Rigg, K. and Phippen, A. (2016) Grooming within organisations: how to keep children safe (PDF). London: Farrer & Co LLP.

Information for parents

Find advice for parents on the NSPCC website:

> Learn about preventing online abuse

> Learn about e-safety for schools

> Learn about social media and online communities

> Take our Online safety training

> Book a free online safety group workshop