Numerous mental health studies suggest that one of the best ways to help children develop resilience and recover from adverse childhood experiences is for them to have a trusted confidante outside the family. Yet we also are told that protecting children from sexual abuse requires our preventing a sexual predator from “grooming” them. The problem is that the two dynamics look a lot alike. I worry sometimes that in our zeal to protect children, we are frightening ourselves out of allowing them to establish important and beneficial relationships.

If you search the Internet for articles about signs of grooming, you will learn that everything from kids’ playing video games with their uncles to getting trips to the ice cream store can be a sign of grooming. I once had a staff member for one of my client organizations insist that a father’s weekly lunches with his preschool daughter were special attention that signaled grooming. The polite term for that reaction is hypervigilant nonsense — father-daughter dates are not grooming.

Yet, we hear so many horror stories that every good mentoring relationship starts to look like grooming. Establishing close relationships? That’s exactly what we want mentors to do. Help a child feel special? Check. Keep their confidences (in areas not related to health or safety)? Check and check. So where is the boundary line between good mentoring and dangerous grooming?

Actually, the boundary line seems to be boundary lines. Predators will push the personal boundaries that all children need to be safe and independent. Some predators will ask a lot of questions about a child’s romantic life — a topic that most adults find only marginally interesting. Listening sympathetically while a child confides is one thing; asking a lot of nosy questions is pushing boundaries. Briefly hugging a child who needs comfort is normal and positive; finding excuses for a “tickling game” usually is beyond healthy boundaries. We can appreciate an adult who takes time out of their day to listen to a child. An adult who seems to have no adults friends and spends all of his or her time with children will have trouble observing healthy adult boundaries.

The other thing unique to grooming is that the perpetrator will try to isolate the child from the rest of his or her community, whether physically or emotionally. A bad actor will try to create opportunities to be physically alone with the child. Watch for the difference between an adult (with healthy adult relationships) who babysits or carpools when asked and an adult who seems eager to create time alone with a child.

An abuser also will try to emotionally isolate a child, such as telling a child secrets or convincing him or her that “no one else understands you like I do.” Again, there is a difference between allowing a child to confide in one — all childen need to be able to confide in trusted adults without fear of ridicule — and telling a child that the other adults in his or her life just don’t understand.

The proliferation of social media makes it very easy for an adult to establish an emotionally close relationship without any other adult knowing about it. All we can do is ask a lot of questions, keep an eye on our children’s social media accounts, and stay as informed as we can.

Children need mentors, and they need trusted adults outside their family. It is our job to encourage healthy relationships with adults while being vigilant for signs of unhealthy relationships and grooming. We cannot take anything for granted, but being overly vigilant and protective will harm our children in other significant ways. Like many hard jobs in parenting, we have to work to get this balance right.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.