Signs of grooming in teens and young adults

What is grooming?

A form of sexual assault, grooming is a manipulative behavior that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. While these tactics are used most often against younger kids, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk. It’s important to know the signs of grooming in teens and young adults so you can offer them support.

There are two ways to groom a victim: online or in person. Anyone can be a groomer, regardless of age, gender, or race, and no community or group is more likely to be groomers than others. From weeks to years, grooming can also occur over a short or long period of time.

Grooming is usually done by a relative or someone close to the victim. It is a common method used by sexual abusers, exploiters, or traffickers.

It’s important to know what grooming is and how it occurs because it impacts people every day. It is estimated that approximately 50% of child abuse involves sexual grooming, and in the past four years, online grooming crimes have increased by more than 80%, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Grooming can lead to sexual abuse, internet stalking, or harassment. These traumatic moments can negatively impact someone’s mental and physical health and create challenges in forming relationships afterward.

In the real world or online, teenagers and young adults can be groomed by strangers or people they know. Whether you are concerned about grooming or need resources or ways to stay safe, we are here to help.

Types of grooming

In-person grooming

When grooming is done physically or in-person, touch is often involved. The abuser may begin by patting a young person’s arm or back, which is deemed acceptable, before moving on to hugging, tickling, and wrestling. Ultimately, this condition causes the teenager to become more comfortable with physical contact. It may seem harmless to the young person since they interpret the action as a loving gesture from a trusted adult. The abuser continues to make the young person more receptive to their touch – eventually leading to sexual contact.

Common tactics

Whether online or in-person, groomers can use tactics like:

  • Pretending to be younger
  • Giving advice or showing understanding
  • Buying gifts
  • Giving attention
  • Taking them on trips, outings, or holidays.

Online grooming

Online or digital grooming can involve adults creating fake profiles and posing as children or teens to befriend someone and gain their trust. It also includes adults participating in online chat groups or forums that cater to the interests and hobbies of children and teens. This is different from catfishing, which involves creating a fake profile online to trick someone, as the picture they use is not necessarily theirs.

Groomers can meet and learn about teenagers’ interests through the same sites, games, and apps they use. There are several ways in which someone can meet children or teens online in order to groom them:

  • Social media networks
  • Messaging apps, such as Discord or Whatsapp
  • Using e-mail
  • Forums, online games, and apps with text, voice, and video chat

Warning signs of grooming

Much of the grooming process occurs in private (online or IRL) or appears harmless at first. Grooming behaviors are often subtle and may not seem inappropriate at first glance, so it’s important to know potential warning signs. The following warning signs include what to look out for in adults and the signs that a child or teen is experiencing grooming.

Behaviors to look out for in adults:

  • An adult who is interested in someone under 18. This could include an adult sending frequent messages to a minor or asking them out on dates.
  • Physically and emotionally isolating a teen or young adult from their family and friends.
  • Asserting a “no one understands you like I do” mindset undermines relationships with friends and family members.
  • Encouraging a teenager or young adult to keep secrets from their families.
  • An adult who regularly initiates or creates opportunities for them and the teenager or young person to spend time alone.
  • An adult who gradually pushes or crosses physical boundaries. For example, the abuser may hug the young person for a long time, encourage the teenager to sit on their laps, or “accidentally” touch the young person’s private areas.
  • An adult who finds opportunities to give a teenager or young person gifts or tokens.
  • An adult who displays a preference for age and gender.

Warning signs that someone is experiencing grooming

  • They are secretive about how they spend their time, both online and IRL.
  • Having money or gifts that you did not get and that they can’t or won’t explain.
  • An understanding of sex that’s not appropriate for their age.
  • Spending more time away from home or they go missing for periods of time with no explanation.

Help is available

Grooming can happen to anyone. If this sounds like something you have experienced or someone you know is going through, our advocates are here 24/7 to offer support and find resources that can help you feel safer. You are not alone.

Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), chat with us online at, or text “START” to 88788.