Grooming What it is, signs and how to protect children

Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abusesexual exploitation or trafficking.

Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know - for example a family member, friend or professional.

Groomers may be male or female. They could be any age.

Many children and young people don't understand that they have been groomed or that what has happened is abuse.

Signs of grooming

The signs of grooming aren't always obvious and groomers will often go to great lengths not to be identified.

If a child is being groomed they may:

  • be very secretive, including about what they are doing online
  • have older boyfriends or girlfriends
  • go to unusual places to meet friends
  • have new things such as clothes or mobile phones that they can't or won't explain
  • have access to drugs and alcohol.

In older children, signs of grooming can easily be mistaken for 'normal' teenage behaviour, but you may notice unexplained changes in behaviour or personality, or inappropriate sexual behaviour for their age.


Things you may notice

If you're worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour. 

  • withdrawn
  • suddenly behaves differently
  • anxious
  • clingy
  • depressed
  • aggressive
  • problems sleeping
  • eating disorders
  • wets the bed
  • soils clothes
  • takes risks
  • misses school
  • changes in eating habits
  • obsessive behaviour
  • nightmares
  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • self-harm
  • thoughts about suicide

If you're worried about a child, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse.


How grooming happens

Grooming happens both online and in person. Groomers will hide their true intentions and may spend a long time gaining a child's trust. Groomers may try to gain the trust of a whole family to allow them to be left alone with a child and if they work with children they may use similar tactics with their colleagues.

Groomers do this by:

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

They may also use:

Once they have established trust, groomers will exploit the relationship by isolating the child from friends or family and making the child feel dependent on them. They will use any means of power or control to make a child believe they have no choice but to do what they want.

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 can use social media sites, instant messaging apps including teen dating apps, or online gaming platforms to connect with a young person or child.

They can spend time learning about a young person’s interests from their online profiles and then use this knowledge to help them build up a relationship.

It’s easy for groomers to hide their identity online - they may pretend to be a child and then chat and become ‘friends’ with children they are targeting.

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.

Groomers don’t always target a particular child. Sometimes they will send messages to hundreds of young people and wait to see who responds.

Groomers no longer need to meet children in real life to abuse them. Increasingly, groomers are sexually exploiting their victims by persuading them to take part in online sexual activity.

Child sexual abuse online

When sexual exploitation happens online, young people may be persuaded, or forced, to:

  • send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
  • take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
  • have sexual conversations by text or online.

Abusers may threaten to send images, video or copies of conversations to the young person's friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity.

Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.

Report online abuse to CEOP

CEOP helps keep children safe from online grooming and sexual exploitation. If someone's acted inappropriately to a child or young person you know, report it to CEOP.

Make a CEOP report

How common is grooming

We don't know how common grooming is because often children don't tell anyone what is happening to them.

Children may not speak out because they are:

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

Who is affected

Grooming can affect any child. However, vulnerable children, such as those with disabilities, may be more at risk than others.

Groomers will exploit any vulnerability to increase the child or young person's dependence on them, and reduce the likelihood of the child speaking out.

Children's stories

"He'd arranged to meet the girls out of school on the Monday and take them off with him."

Read Leslie's story

Healthy and unhealthy relationships

Lots of young people have been contacting Childline about their relationships. So we've launched a campaign to help them work out what's right and wrong when it comes to sex and relationships. It's called #ListenToYourSelfie and includes videos and advice for children and young people.

Find out more

Help keep children safe

Share Aware

Children are told it's good to share, but sharing too much online can be dangerous. Help your child stay safe on social networks, apps and games.
Be Share Aware

Talking about difficult topics

There are lots of ways to make it a bit less painful for you both when it comes time to talk about a 'difficult' subject.
Get advice for parents

Online safety

Helpful advice and tools you can use to help keep your child safe whenever and wherever they go online.
Online safety advice

Let's talk PANTS!

The Underwear Rule - #TalkPANTS - is a simple way that parents can help keep children safe from abuse. Join Pantosaurus and parents talking PANTS.
Find out about PANTS

Services for children who need our help

Protect and Respect

For young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation or who have been sexually exploited.
Protect and Respect service

Letting the Future In

Letting the Future In helps children who have been sexually abused.
Letting the Future In service

Hear and Now

Hear and Now helps children who may have been sexually abused through weekly sessions which aim to help children talk about their experiences.
Hear and Now service

More about child abuse

Sexual abuse

A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This doesn't have to be physical contact, and it can happen online.
Read more about sexual abuse

Child trafficking

Child trafficking is a type of abuse where children are recruited, moved or transported and then exploited, forced to work or sold. 
Read more about child trafficking

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a type of sexual abuse in which children are sexually exploited for money, power or status.
Read more about child sexual exploitation

Harmful sexual behaviour

Children and young people who develop harmful sexual behaviour harm themselves and others.
Read more about harmful sexual behaviour