Grooming is when someone falsely gains your trust to persuade or trick you into doing something sexual with them.

This content has been written for children and young people. If you’re looking for information for over 18s, visit our Types of Crime information about online crime.

Grooming can take place online or face-to-face. It can be done by someone you know or someone you don’t, whether they are an adult or another child.

Boy lying on the floor using computer

Grooming is a form of sexual abuse, and if you meet the person who is grooming you they may try to sexually assault you, which is when they touch you in a sexual way that you don’t agree to.

They might use secrecy, blame, gifts or threats of violence to stop you from telling somebody. This is because they know that if you tell someone what’s happening, they will no longer have power or control over you.

Sometimes it starts by a person trying really hard to be nice to you, giving you more and more attention or buying you gifts to make you like them. When they have gained your trust and you start to depend on them, they find ways to turn the relationship into something more sexual – abusing your trust and taking advantage of you.

You may not realise that this is what’s happening to you, as the abuser will try to use many different ways to take advantage of you, including saying that they are your boyfriend or girlfriend.

Grooming also happens online. ‘Groomers’ might try to make friends with you on social media or other sites. They often use chat rooms pretending to be someone else – maybe someone younger, older, a different gender or different sexuality. They often use profile pictures of someone else to hide their identity, and talk to you like they are a similar age to you when they are not.

Even if they do not try to meet with you, the person trying to groom you may encourage you to visit pornographic websites, talk to you about sexual experiences, or ask you to send them pictures or switch on your webcam and do things that you may feel uncomfortable about. All of these things may be forms of sexual abuse.

It’s important to think carefully about who you talk to, and especially about what personal details you share. Being groomed affects many young people who often ask ‘why is this happening to me?’, so it’s important to remember that this is not your fault, and to know that you can get help.

It can be difficult to work out whether someone is trying to groom you. There are some early warning signs – things that might help you realise that someone is acting in a way that isn’t okay.

Try asking yourself a few questions:

  • Did they ask for really personal information about you or someone else, especially early on in your ‘relationship’?
  • Do they want you to keep your ‘relationship’ a secret from other people?
  • Do they want to meet with you alone or in secret?
  • Do they want you to send them pictures of you or of other people, and/or want to send you photos of themselves?
  • Do you feel pressured into doing or saying things that make you feel uncomfortable?
  • Have they asked about your sexual experiences, or how you feel about doing certain sexual things?
  • Do they send or give you gifts or things that you think are either excessive – such as things that are very valuable, or very personal – or are very ‘grown up’, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs?
  • Do they ask you to move your webcam so they can see certain things?
  • Do they seem to already know things about you that you haven’t told them?
  • Are they over 18, while you are under 18? (Although you can be groomed by people your own age.)

These are just a few of the signs that someone could be trying to groom you, even if you believe they are your boyfriend or girlfriend. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s important that you talk to someone – preferably an adult you can trust, but if not then your friends – about what is happening. And remember, if something doesn’t feel right – even slightly – then it probably isn’t.

It can be difficult to recognise that you are a victim of grooming. Quite often the person who is grooming you will want you to think that you are in a relationship with them, and that they are your boyfriend or girlfriend. But what is really happening could be child sexual abuse. Whether you know them or not, whether they are pretending to be a different person or are using their own details, the only reason a groomer gains your trust is to persuade or trick you into doing something sexual with them.

Sex should always be consensual. Remember you’re allowed to say no, you should never be pressured into doing something you don’t want to, and if someone does try to force you into doing something sexual, they are breaking the law.

Below are some things that people may say to pressure you to have sex with them – and some things that you can say that help you say no.

“If you loved me you’d do it.”

If you loved me you, (a) wouldn’t have just said that, and (b) would respect my decision.

“Everyone else is doing it.”

I’m not everyone else.

“You’re frigid.”

No. I’m just comfortable with who I am and what I want.

Children and young people often make lots of friends online. Although most of these friendships stay online, sometimes you may meet these people in real life too – such as if you are into the same band, or the same sports team. But it can be difficult to know if the person you are talking to online is really who they say they are, so it’s not a good idea to meet up with someone just because they want to have a relationship with you or get to know you better.

The best rule is that what starts online, stays online. And if you’re not sure or feel uncomfortable about anything that someone is saying to you online, talk to an adult you can trust or your friends about what is happening, and block the person, or leave the chat room or forum where you’ve been talking to them.

Even if you do decide that you want to meet someone who you have got to know online, there are some important rules which everyone – children and young people as well as adults – should follow:

  • Check as much as you can (age, school, address etc) to make sure they are the person they say they are – you can’t be too cautious.
  • Tell an adult you trust about meeting this person, who they are, and when and where you’re meeting.
  • Call them with an unlisted number – turn your caller ID sending off (remember text messages always give your number), and call rather than text, as you can tell a lot from someone’s voice.
  • Arrange to meet somewhere public, and be sure to bring either two or more friends or a trusted adult.
  • Even if you’ve arranged to meet, don’t put too much personal information on your social networking pages – they may not turn up, but they can still use that information.

Grooming is often quite difficult to recognise. Many children and young people don’t realise that they are being groomed, or that what is happening (or has happened) is abuse. Sometimes you might even think you are being groomed when someone is just trying to be friendly.

But as it’s your safety at stake, it is always better to be over-cautious. You may feel worried, sad or angry if you think you are being groomed, or you’re worried that a friend is, and it can be really hard to deal with this all on your own. However, lots of people find that if they talk to someone it can help. Some things you can do are:

  • Tell an adult you trust. This could include a teacher, a family member, your youth worker or support worker. Tell them what is going on and ask for their help and advice. With this adult, you could develop a safety plan that would help you to choose how best to keep yourself safe.
  • If you have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, speak to a doctor or a nurse so they can check that you are ok and give you any medical help.
  • Talk to your friends. A good friend will listen to you and may help you speak to an adult.
  • Think about reporting it to the police. If the grooming has taken place online, you should also report what’s happened to the website or forum where you met and chatted to the person who groomed you.
  • Learn how to keep yourself safe online – this includes reporting what’s happened to the websites or forums where you met and chatted to the person who groomed you.

Victim Support’s Children and Young People Services – you can contact your nearest Victim Support office, call the 24/7 Supportline, contact us via live chat, or if you are 16 or older, you can create a My Support Space account. This is a free, safe and secure online space where you can work through interactive guides to help you move forward after crime..

Rape Crisis – information and support for women and girls who have been raped or experienced sexual violence: 0808 802 9999.

Childline – 24-hour support for young people, both on the phone and through online chats and message boards, on grooming, sexual assault and a range of other issues: 0800 1111.

The Mix – information and support for under 25s on a whole range of issues, including rape and sexual assault as well as safe sexual relationships. Get confidential help by email, text, webchat or phone: 0808 808 4994.