Identifying and preventing grooming

Warning: This page contains information that may be distressing or triggering for some people. Contact support services

Be informed to spot and prevent grooming

Grooming doesn’t just happen to other people’s children, young people or whānau. If you know what to look for — and how the grooming process works — you can take action to protect tamariki and rangatahi in sport and recreation.

‘Grooming’ includes:

  • using the trusting nature of children and young people to manipulate, prepare and coerce them into being used for sexual activities — or to get hold of nude, or nearly nude photos or videos of them

  • befriending, manipulating and misleading the adults around tamariki and rangatahi to obscure their motives and to get away with it

  • managing the environment or setup in clubs and organisations to create opportunities for abuse.

It’s difficult to spot if you don’t know what to look for.

  • The behaviours and warning signs can be subtle and can appear to be kind gestures and actions.

  • Widespread incorrect beliefs or preconceptions about grooming can also make it difficult to understand what’s going on.

  • People planning to groom children and young people are skilled at hiding in plain sight. They can be charming, friendly and get on well with everyone.

Unfortunately, many people don’t speak up or act, even if they sense something is not quite right,  as it’s easier to believe that it wouldn’t happen in their backyard or to their children.

Laws against grooming

We have laws in Aotearoa New Zealand to protect children and young people under 16 years old from grooming. If someone engages or contacts a child or young person under 16 years old and intends to sexually abuse or exploit them, it is against the law. This should be reported to the Police immediately. This applies even if they haven’t harmed a child or young person at the time.

Read the law against grooming in sections 131AB, 131B and 98AA of the Crimes Act 1961 – on the New Zealand Legislation website

Young people over the age of 15 can also be groomed. The information on this page is also relevant for protecting them.

How grooming happens

Grooming can happen:

  • in person

  • online (social media, video chats, emails and messaging apps), or

  • on the phone or through texting.

People who set out to groom children and young people can use one or more of these approaches.

They count on people not saying anything

They count on the people around them not saying anything because they build trusting friendships and relationships. They build trust by:

  • befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a particular child or young person — they will usually start broadly with a group and then target one or two children or young people

  • giving attention or gifts to the child and sometimes the whole family

  • aiming to appear indispensable to the adults in the club or organisation.

They look for opportunities

They may plan ahead and look for opportunities by:

  • looking for jobs or volunteer roles with tamariki and rangatahi

  • breaking small rules to test what they can get away with and to see if anyone challenges their behaviour

  • creating environments or situations that give them opportunities to offend.

They manipulate children and young people

They may create fear and manipulate tamariki and rangatahi by:

  • using the friendship and trust they’ve built with the child or young person as persuasion or as a lever

  • using power imbalances to take control and make a child or young person feel dependent or isolated

  • using their authority to control how a child or young person progresses in their sport or recreation activity

  • asking children and young people to keep secrets, and then using these to control and test their compliance

  • using shame and guilt to keep children and young people silent

  • targeting the vulnerable — research shows that children and young people experiencing difficulties in their home life can be targeted more easily.

Grooming can happen online too

Online grooming includes:

  • using social media and messaging apps to manipulate tamariki or rangatahi

  • pretending to be someone else

  • pressuring a child into sending pictures and then threatening to share them

  • taking the grooming process away from the club, organisation and other people so that they can speed it up.

Learn more about online grooming on the Netsafe website

What to look out for

You can help stop grooming behaviour before it progresses further if you know what to look out for and watch out for the early signs.

Look out for changes in tamariki and rangatahi

Even if a child or young person was manipulated or pressured into keeping it a secret, or is being abused, there are signs you can look for in their behaviour. Look out for:

  • secretive use of phones and tablets

  • unexplained gifts

  • inappropriate knowledge about sex for their age

  • sudden changes in participation, such as avoiding training or activities

  • becoming more withdrawn than usual

  • fear of certain people, or places or areas

  • developing wellbeing or sexual health problems

  • developing mental health problems

  • alcohol or drug misuse

  • children or young people spending time with a much older ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’.

Talk with a child or young person if they seem sad, or fearful or stressed around someone, or they are avoiding them. We understand that this may lead to difficult or uncomfortable conversations. Even if the child or young person doesn’t open up and tell you what’s going on, it’s much better to check than to assume nothing’s going on with them.  

Look out for clusters of incidents

It’s difficult to identify grooming from one-off incidents. Look out for clusters of incidents and behaviours and think about the intentions behind these.

Look out for incidents where someone repeatedly sets up ways to be alone with a child or young person:

  • in a way that isolates them

  • by using a position of authority, for example, in coaching or instructing relationships

  • by seeming overly helpful, for example, offering babysitting or childcare, or offering a child or young person rides

  • by encouraging tamariki or rangatahi to spend time with them in secret — this could be in person or online.

Look out for people that could be manipulating relationships by:

  • seeking to build unusual connections with others beyond their role in the club or organisation

  • offering special treatment or gifts to certain children and tamariki or their caregivers and whānau

  • befriending a child or young person by acting like their best friend or someone cool to hang out with

  • interfering with or manipulating a child’s or young person’s relationships with their friends or whānau

  • rewarding and encouraging tamariki and rangatahi to keep secrets, for example though special attention online or in person, or giving gifts secretly to imply favouritism.

Watch out for people who:

  • test boundaries by blurring the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour — for example, joking about grooming, being alone regularly with someone else’s child and downplaying any concerns

  • insist on physical contact with a child, such as hugging, tickling or touching them

  • erode interpersonal boundaries and shift from acceptable to inappropriate boundaries (for example, safe, appropriate and legitimate touching to correct a swim stroke shifting to inappropriate touching) 

  • push sexual boundaries and introduce sexual topics and actions into a conversation or situation around children, even when it’s joking

  • uses alcohol and other enticements and gifts 

  • provides access to adult material

  • often walks in on children and young people in changing areas, showers and toilets 

  • makes a habit of undressing in front of tamariki and rangatahi  

  • talks about their sexual fantasies or adult relationship problems with a child or young person.

Who may groom children and young people

People who abuse children can be any gender and any age.

  • It’s not only male adults that do this, although statistics show that the majority are male.

  • Some women are known to groom children and young people.

People seeking to groom children and young people may join sport and recreation clubs and organisations. This gives them opportunities. This means they could be someone you know.

  • Although people commonly assume the risk of abuse comes from ‘stranger danger’, this usually isn’t the case. This assumption can make it easier to groom children, as the children may think that people known to them aren’t strangers and won’t harm them. It can also lull parents and caregivers into a false sense of security.

  • People who intend to groom tamariki or rangatahi are often friendly and charming. They may be skilled at fitting in and getting on with other people. They will sometimes befriend the child’s caregivers too. They are often someone that the child, or the child’s family, already knows and trusts.

  • They may hold positions of trust or authority. They may work to make sure they are perceived as respectable, reliable and trustworthy. 

  • They do not fit the stereotypes of the people we hear about on the news. If they were easy to spot, then children and young people would avoid them and adults would keep them away from children and young people. But they aren’t easy to spot.

  • It could be someone in your club or organisation.

  • One or more people may enable or carry out grooming together to target tamariki and rangatahi collaboratively.  

The people who wish to groom children rely on caregivers:

  • being complacent

  • thinking their family is immune (“we don’t know anyone like that", “nobody we know would do that”)

  • believing in stereotypes of who can be spotted easily

  • refusing to believe that sexual abuse could happen in their whānau, social group, club or organisation.

Who is at risk

Any child or young person is at risk of being groomed and abused. Grooming doesn’t only happen to adolescent girls. Boys and younger children are also targeted.

Some children and young people may appear more vulnerable, and then be more likely to be targeted. This is because these children can seem easier to manipulate and isolate from their whānau or friends.

It’s never the fault of the child or young person — they didn’t ‘ask for it’.

Who is at greater risk

Children and young people who may be at greater risk from grooming include:

  • younger children and those with disabilities

  • those with low self-esteem

  • where they depend highly on an adult to progress in their sport or recreation, or for a place on a team or squad

  • those in families where the parents need to be away and often rely on babysitters or other people to look after them (for example, where both parents work or in solo-parent families)

  • children or young people experiencing difficulties or clashes in their relationships with their peers or whānau

  • tamariki and rangatahi experiencing difficulties at home, for example if they are experiencing neglect or family violence, or who are in care.

Why children and young people might keep it secret

It’s difficult for a child or young person to tell an adult about being tricked, groomed or sexually abused. They may not understand they are being groomed. They may not speak out about it even when asked directly if they:

  • feel confused, embarrassed or ashamed

  • fear they won’t be believed

  • don’t understand or recognise that the situation is harmful or abusive to them, for example, if they are too young to understand, or are focused on the special attention, gifts or the perceived benefits from coaching or instructing relationships

  • depend on the person causing harm, for example, worrying that a coach or instructor won’t pick them for a team or trip.

Preventing grooming in your club or organisation

01

Write, adopt and enforce policies and a code of conduct

As well as being aware of the information above on this page, there are several strategies that sport and recreation clubs and organisations can have in place.

Make sure your club or organisation has:

  • a child-safeguarding policy

  • a safer recruitment policy

  • a code of conduct for staff, volunteers and members, including children and young people, so that small infringements can be challenged before they become an issue

  • guidance on appropriate communication with children and young people, including using online messaging and social media apps to communicate with children or parents.

Having policies and documents is not enough. These must also be implemented through clear guidance and enforced. They must be promoted and communicated so that everyone knows:

  • where to find them and access them

  • what they need to do to keep children and young people safer.

02

Provide training and education

Research shows that many communities don’t fully understand how grooming works, or the risks to children in both physical and online environments.  

Many people also find it difficult to think and talk about. Sometimes it’s easier to deny it’s happening. People can be anxious about talking about it. If they sense something, they can worry about being wrong if they accuse someone, and damaging relationships or reputations.

As we mentioned above, grooming is difficult to spot and it’s easier to believe that it couldn’t possibly happen in your club or organisation. But it’s this trusting attitude, along with a lack of knowledge and skill, that can allow it to happen.

  • Provide training and education.

  • Be consistent about what is (and is not) acceptable behaviour. Actively communicate this.

  • Ensure everyone in the club or organisation at all levels has an adequate level of understanding of what is acceptable.

  • Provide relevant education programmes and guidance on grooming and abuse prevention for staff, volunteers, members and parents.

  • Encourage people to speak up about concerning behaviour. Let them know how to report it.

By encouraging discussions about what is and isn’t okay, you’ll give children the language and opportunity to share concerns.

03

Make reporting it easier

  • Set out a clear process for reporting incidents and concerns in the club or organisation.

  • Ensure everyone in the club or organisation knows that concerns will be handled correctly and will remain confidential.

  • Make sure everyone knows how to report, and make it easy to report.

  • Have clear lines of reporting and actions for when people do speak up.

  • Take concerns and complaints seriously, particularly from children, and inform us at the Commission — and other services, such as Oranga Tamariki or the Police — so that it can be investigated by someone skilled in this area.

To report an incident, call the Police on 105 or 111 if it's an emergency.

Use the online form to make a complaint to us Report a concern to Oranga Tamariki the Ministry for Children

04

Consult and listen to children and young people

Involving and listening to children, including asking for their opinions about decisions, means they are more likely to speak up if they have concerns.

See our guidance on child protection for more information about preventing abuse and harm to tamariki and rangatahi

What parents can do

Parents and caregivers can find it difficult to think and talk about grooming. It’s difficult to believe it could happen to your whānau. Don’t be complacent, or think your family is immune. As well as familiarising yourself with the information on this web page:

  • ask your club or organisation what they are doing to prevent grooming and abuse to children

  • attend training and education session about grooming — don’t put this off because it feels depressing, or you feel too busy to prioritise it, or because you’ve assumed you “don’t know anyone like that"

  • search for information and guidance to educate yourself

Don’t assume your children will intuitively know what’s wrong, would be able to protect themselves, would disobey abusers, or that they would report it — this is a complex issue as outlined above on this web page.

Understand your role in protecting your own children. It’s not just down to the club, organisation or activity providers.

  • Listen to your child or young person if they ever have concerns. Report these concerns to your club or organisation. If you remain concerned after this, you could contact us at the Commission, or other services, such as the Police and Oranga Tamariki.

  • Make clear rules for your child’s use of cell phones, social media, or other online platforms.

  • Review plans for activities, events, rides, and travel for trips with your children. Make sure both you and they are comfortable with the arrangements and everybody who will be involved.

  • Talk to your tamariki and rangatahi about setting personal boundaries for themselves and respecting those of others. For younger children, make sure they know who is allowed to help them with personal tasks that involve their private body parts.

  • Tell your child they can tell you, or another trusted adult, if something is wrong. Reassure them that you will always believe them and ask them to never keep secrets from you. 

  • Talk with your child about grooming and ask if these, or any other behaviours have made them uncomfortable. 

To report an incident, call the Police on 105 or 111 if it's an emergency

Use the online form to make a complaint to us Report a concern to Oranga Tamariki the Ministry for Children

What parents can do

Parents and caregivers can find it difficult to think and talk about grooming. It’s difficult to believe it could happen to your whānau. Don’t be complacent, or think your family is immune. As well as familiarising yourself with the information on this web page:

  • ask your club or organisation what they are doing to prevent grooming and abuse to children

  • attend training and education session about grooming — don’t put this off because it feels depressing, or you feel too busy to prioritise it, or because you’ve assumed you “don’t know anyone like that"

  • search for information and guidance to educate yourself

Don’t assume your children will intuitively know what’s wrong, would be able to protect themselves, would disobey abusers, or that they would report it — this is a complex issue as outlined above on this web page.

Understand your role in protecting your own children. It’s not just down to the club, organisation or activity providers.

  • Listen to your child or young person if they ever have concerns. Report these concerns to your club or organisation. If you remain concerned after this, you could contact us at the Commission, or other services, such as the Police and Oranga Tamariki.

  • Make clear rules for your child’s use of cell phones, social media, or other online platforms.

  • Review plans for activities, events, rides, and travel for trips with your children. Make sure both you and they are comfortable with the arrangements and everybody who will be involved.

  • Talk to your tamariki and rangatahi about setting personal boundaries for themselves and respecting those of others. For younger children, make sure they know who is allowed to help them with personal tasks that involve their private body parts.

  • Tell your child they can tell you, or another trusted adult, if something is wrong. Reassure them that you will always believe them and ask them to never keep secrets from you. 

  • Talk with your child about grooming and ask if these, or any other behaviours have made them uncomfortable. 

To report an incident, call the Police on 105 or 111 if it's an emergency.

Use the online form to make a complaint to us Report a concern to Oranga Tamariki the Ministry for Children