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| 3 minutes read

Know the Difference Between Good Mentoring and Predatory Grooming

All youth organizations need to guard against grooming. The problem is that the characteristics used to describe both good mentors and predatory groomers are often similar, making it hard to tell the difference from outside the relationship. We’ve had numerous clients say, “Until we found out about the abuse, we thought he was the best staff member we had ever had.” Predators tend to be charming and very good at charming everyone.

YSOs need to be vigilant, but there is a cost to being so vigilant that you lose good mentors. Research in childhood trauma shows that the single most common factor in building resilience is for a child to have a strong and healthy relationship with a caring adult. So being overly protective of children to the point that we deprive them of good mentors actually can cause its own level of harm.

Avoiding grooming behavior while encouraging mentoring behavior requires that we pay attention to the unique characteristics of harmful grooming. Those red flags are (1) favoritism, (2) isolation, and (3) boundary violations.

1.          Favoritism. Avoiding favoritism is a hallmark of good professional behavior. Children don’t need to feel that a staff member plays favorites, even if the child benefits from being the favorite. If you notice a staff member setting up a strong relationship with a child or group of children, then you need to pay attention to those dynamics.  One common example of favoritism would be a staff member providing expensive gifts or spending an unusual amount of time and resources on a child. There’s no doubt that our programs will encounter children who need resources, and youth workers always have a soft spot for children in need. We have all heard heartwarming stories of teachers or mentors who became foster parents for a child that they met in a YSO. What distinguishes those stories from grooming situations is that the good mentors followed the procedure of an established program and went through all the necessary screening. They didn’t insert themselves into a child’s life without oversight or accountability. In other words, they recognized boundaries in the help that they provided. 

If you see problematic favoritism for a child who has a legitimate need, remind your worker of appropriate boundaries. Then try to find help from a reputable source that will get your organization, and your kind-hearted worker, out of the equation. How the worker responds to those limits will tell you a lot of what you need to know about their intentions.

2.          Isolation. Predators tend to isolate their victims, either physically or emotionally. Line of sight and the other rules we discussed above are important to prevent physical isolation. You also need to pay attention to emotional isolation. It’s very common for predators to tell kids that no one else understands them or cares for them as much as the predator does. We also frequently see groomers encourage children to keep things secret from their parents or other adults. This tendency toward isolation is one reason that you should consider having a parent or administrator copied on emails. That practice makes it difficult for a worker to keep secrets from parents or supervisors.

3.          Boundary violations. The third characteristic that you often see is boundary violations. People intent on grooming a child will push boundaries of professional behavior and start inserting themselves into personal areas. This level of unprofessionalism doesn’t always mean that the adult is a pedophile. Sometimes young adults really do see themselves as peers of older teens. Those new adults can drift into serious problems before they realize it. In those cases, clear boundaries protect both the minor and the young staff member.

More often, though, we see predators deliberately testing boundaries or overstepping them. Of course, violation of physical boundaries is always a red flag. Conversations also can create boundary issues, such as when a worker shares inappropriate details about his or her personal life or steers the conversation toward sexually oriented topics. Similarly, soliciting information about a student’s personal life (outside a professional counseling setting) should raise concerns. 

These three issues are not the only indicators of grooming, but almost every situation will have one of these red flags. Watch for them so that you can encourage healthy relationships between your workers and the kids in your program and you can weed out the dangerous adults.


youth services law, ausburn_deborah, child protection