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What We Can Teach Our Children About Grooming And Manipulation

Preventing the sexual grooming of a minor can be very difficult and requires a number of different approaches, according to teachers and psychologists.

Serena Joseph* joined her school band at 12 and within a few years, she had become increasingly close with the band's director, who was 13 years her senior.

He bought her a mobile phone, and records from a 10-month police probe into their relationship showed they swapped 2,999 texts in a single month.

"We were texting really frequent. He'd ask questions about my absent father, working mother and even past sexual partners I've had," New Yorker Joseph told 10 daily.

Their conversations turned intimate when the band director sent a suggestive text one night and Joseph spent "20 minutes" deciding she'd respond.

Joseph* told 10 daily when she was a 17-year-old student, she was sexually groomed by her 30-year-old band director. Image: Supplied.

"I was nervous. What if I told him no, and I wouldn't get picked for any fun performances?

"And honestly, I was also a little bit excited because a grown man was interested in me."

The next day he managed to get Joseph alone in his office, and after she complied to a request to see her breasts, he performed oral sex on her.

Joseph, now 27, said the band director was her "father figure" turned abuser. He was later found by education officials to be  "involved in an inappropriate relationship" and fired.

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Australian psychologist Elizabeth Talbot told 10 daily since sexual grooming by an adult occurs slowly, young people like Joseph are left feeling like willing participants.

Building trust, making the victim feel special, exploiting vulnerabilities, even using threats of harm or jail can lead the minor to keeping the abuse secret.

These techniques are "very difficult" to warn and teach children about, Talbot said.

Building trust, making the victim feel special, exploiting vulnerabilities, even using threats of harm or jail can lead the minor to keeping the abuse secret. Image: Getty.

"Kids are trusting by nature. They aren’t necessarily capable of spotting manipulation, which requires abstract thinking that develops later," she said.

Sydney teacher Carolina Murdoch agreed that the task of instructing young people to watch out for signs they're being manipulated is a formidable one.

"That's partly because where it's happening are new spaces, spaces that as adults we don't really have insight into."

Murdoch told 10 daily teaching young people about psychological manipulation is "undoubtedly" a part of what schools must do.

"While students get a lot of education in this area, especially in regards to social media, there's always more we could be doing," Murdoch said.

Murdoch said instructing young people to watch out for signs they're being manipulated is a formidable task, especially due to "new spaces" like social media. Image: Getty.

"Schools can do an awful lot of parent education as well, around how to support that and how to have those conversations with their children."

While her sexual grooming situation occurred 10 years ago, Joseph hasn't been honest with her mother about it "'til this day".

"I don't think she can handle it. I honestly still don't know if she believes me or not," she said.

Becoming a mother herself made her realise "how young and immature" she was at 17, and how easy it was to be taken advantage of.

"I'm going to teach my daughter if a conversation feels wrong, say something. No matter how popular or powerful you think this person may be."

"I'm going to teach my daughter if a conversation feels wrong, say something." Image: Getty.

Parents should limit their children's exposure to risky environments without expressly focusing on threat and danger, according to Talbot.

Even more important is coaching them on body autonomy and fostering good communication, she said.

"Teach them something concrete they can understand and practice, i.e. their body is theirs and no-one is permitted to touch it without asking first."

"Finally, the golden overriding rule: no keeping secrets from or between parents, no matter what anyone says."

As for Joseph, she recalls thinking for many years afterwards her band director "wasn't a bad guy and didn't deserve what was happening to him".

"Even though it's 10 years later, I'm still healing."

*Not the subject's real name.

If you need help in a crisis, or just need someone to talk to, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.