Signs of Grooming a Young Person for Trafficking

We have all heard the social media hysteria over people in white vans kidnapping children for trafficking or placing some marking on a car of someone they plan to traffic. However, this type of method is rarely used here in the United States to traffic someone. Most often a trafficker will use a grooming process to manipulate their victim and eventually exploit them.

85% of trafficking victims report having a close relationship with their trafficker [1]. This is evidence of this grooming tactic working. When a trafficker builds a relationship with their victim the goal is to gain their trust and often make an emotional connection. This allows the trafficker to manipulate and control their victim better in the future.

Stages of Grooming

  1. Gain Info and Trust

Once a predator has identified a potential victim, they will work to gain information about them and gain their trust. This can be done through simple conversations online or if they are in-person the predator may listen in to conversation about the young person to learn details about their life.

42% of victims report their trafficker earned their trust within 1 month of meeting [1].

  1. Fill the Need

Next, they will look for a need they can fill. This may simply be buying the victim something (new phone, jewelry, clothes etc…) or giving them cash, drugs, or alcohol. Some predators may provide support to a young person that is not getting this at home. While others will develop a romantic relationship with their victim and promise them love.

Some predators may promise a job to their victim often in the music or modeling industries, using the promise of glamour and excitement to further connect with their victim.

  1. Isolate

The predator will begin to isolate the victim from their support system, whatever that may be. It could be from their family, friends, sports teams, school choir, etc… The goal is to make the victim more reliant on them and drive a wedge between the support system and the victim.

  1. Abuse and Control

Once the predator has accomplished this the abuse and control will start. The moment a victim has experienced this level of trauma the way in which their brain functions starts to change. The brain goes into survival mode essentially and only focuses on the basic needs of survival (food, sleep, safety) making escape harder and harder.

“If I do what I’m told I will get to eat, sleep and he won’t hurt me.”

Red Flags of Grooming Behavior

-An adult paying a specific young person more attention than others – this may just be paying them compliments or buying them small gifts at an unnecessary level.

-Slowly isolating a person from family and friends, this may be in the form of physical isolation or emotional isolation.

-Undermining a young person’s supportive relationship. Saying things like “No one understands you like I do” to cause division.

-Any mention of an older boyfriend or new friends without a lot of other information.

-Having new things that you did not give them. Such as: clothes, jewelry, electronics, money. Often, they can’t or won’t explain where it came from.

-A young person being uncharacteristically upset, withdrawn, distressed.

-Young person having more sexualized behavior or language that is not age appropriate or consistent with what you have taught them.

-Spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time.

-Spending more time online.

-Secretive behavior.

-A sudden and drastic change in behavior, attitude, and appearance. While this doesn’t always mean grooming it usually means something (bullying, other forms of abuse) and should be addressed.


What To Do If You Expect Grooming

1.Avoid Ultimatums – an ultimatum such as, “you are going to stop talking to this person or I’m taking your phone away” creates a need for the predator to fill. “Oh, they took your phone, that is okay, here is a new one, your parents don’t have to know about it.”

2.Offer a safe place for your child to talk about their relationship with the predator without judgement. The predator may have told your child you are untrustworthy so be consistent with your words and actions.

3.Do not speak badly about the predator only about their behavior. When a young person feels they are “in love” with someone any negativity about that person will possibly drive the young person further away from you. Focus on the behavior itself and your conversations will be more beneficial.

4.Grooming in and of itself is not a crime until the abuse happens. If you believe abuse has happened, report it to the local police

5.For further support reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888.373.7888) to be connected to resources in your area.



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[1] Survivor Insights – Thorn (2018, January). Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking [PDF].