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Understanding the alleged abuser's coercive and manipulative behaviours


Coercive control and manipulation (sometimes known as 'grooming') is the process by which a person prepares a child, significant other adults and the environment for the abuse of this child.

Alleged abusers may seek to gain access to the child, gain the child’s compliance and maintain the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure. This process serves to strengthen the alleged abuser’s abusive pattern as it may be used as a means of justifying or denying their actions (Craven et al, 2006) and creates barriers to children disclosing sexual abuse. Berliner and Conte (1990) (cited in Bennett and O’Donohue, 2014) found that:

  • 70% of children reported that their abusers “accidentally” came into their bedroom or bathroom while they were undressing
  • 61% indicated that their abusers “accidentally” touched their private parts
  • 61% said that their abusers did not respect their privacy or let them close doors
  • 61% reported that their abusers “accidentally” showed their naked body to them
  • 57% indicated that their abusers would purposely do things with the child that involved physical contact
  • 48% said that their abusers made sexual comments about the child’s body or clothing
  • 44% reported that their abusers asked them to do things that involved physical contact
  • 30% said that their abusers would inspect the child’s body “to see how it was developing”
  • 30% indicated that their abusers “taught sex education” by showing pornographic pictures and touching the child’s body
  • 26% reported that their abusers told the child about sexual things he had previously done
  • 22% indicated that their abusers put lotion or ointment on the child when they were alone but said he was doing nothing wrong.

These kinds of precursory behaviours can be defined as 'antecedent inappropriate behaviour that functions to increase the likelihood of future sexual abuse'.

Alleged abusers may also engage in other behaviours aimed at preparing a child for sexual abuse at a later time. These can include attempting to befriend or establish an emotional connection with the child, parent or carer through giving gifts, paying special attention to the child, taking the child on outings, frequently filming or taking photos of the child, making the child feel special or indebted to the adult, and other behaviours that decrease a child’s boundaries to physical contact or requests for contact.

In many instances it is difficult to identify these behaviours as preparing a child for sexual abuse, as many behaviours used by abusers appear quite similar to behaviours seen in normal adult–child relationships. Buying gifts for children or taking them on private outings obviously are not always precursors to sexual abuse. These behaviours can be difficult for forensic and departmental officers to identify and prove and almost impossible for carers and parents and children themselves to detect, until it is too late and the abuse has occurred.

For further information on coercion and manipulation and the impact on the child, refer to Manipulation and coercion in the Working with children part.

Understanding the impacts of coercion and manipulation on the parent

To be able to continue to sexually abuse the child, the abuser uses techniques that both decrease the child’s ability to disclose abuse and reduce the ability of the parent and other supportive adults to believe the child’s disclosure. By seeing and understanding how the alleged abuser or offender has manipulated the parent, practitioners are better able to understand the barriers to parents believing the concerns and develop empathic responses which can assist in building their belief.

Parents who have experienced abuse in their own childhood, and are now experiencing alcohol and other drugs use, mental health or disability issues, or domestic violence may also experience additional barriers to believing and responding supportively to their child.

The parent could be:

  • relying on the alleged abuser to meet their child’s needs
  • having difficulty responding appropriately to their child’s needs because they don’t know how to respond, who to talk to or where to get help
  • isolated from family and the community with the alleged abuser offering an opportunity for connection
  • fearful of child protection services
  • have a personal history of being sexually abused as a child and have an element of faulty thinking regarding what child sexual abuse may look like, or the impact it has on a child
  • fearful that their child’s disclosure means that they will be blamed for the abuse and the alleged abuser, child and family will be alienated and stigmatised by the community.

A relationship-based approach which links vulnerable parents to family and community as well as services is critical to address any reliance on the alleged abuser, reduce isolation and increase their capacity to support their child.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

How has alleged abuser prevented the parent from believing the child?

Common strategies may include:

  • discrediting the child as a liar, untrustworthy, promiscuous, attention-seeking
  • telling the child their parent knows about or condones the abuse
  • telling the child that the parent thinks they are not believable
  • preventing the child from spending time with the parent.

“What has [alleged abuser ] told you about the child?”

“Tell me about [alleged abuser’s] relationship with [child]. What does he like about [child]? What doesn’t he like about [child]?”

“When was the last time you felt really close and connected to your child? What was happening for your family then? What has your relationship with [child] been like lately?”

“How much one on one time do you spend with [child]? Has this changed recently?”

“It is really common for people who sexually abuse kids to say things to damage the child’s relationship with their parents. They do this to stop the child telling their parents about the abuse. Have you noticed [alleged abuser ] doing anything like that?”

How did [alleged abuser ] make the child fearful of disclosing abuse to their parent?

Common strategies could include making the child:

  • promise to keep the abuse secret
  • feel scared of retribution if they disclosed the abuse
  • feel responsible for the parent’s wellbeing or the wellbeing of the family
  • think their parent would not believe them
  • think their parent would agree with the abuse.
“Lots of parents feel really upset that their child didn’t tell them about the abuse first. People who abuse children deliberately try to stop kids from telling their parents.”

How can this alleged abuse or offender continue to influence this parent now that Child Safety has become involved?

Common strategies include:

  • providing ‘rational’ alternative explanations for the abuse
  • minimising their responsibility for the abuse
  • blaming others for the abuse.

“What do you think [alleged abuser or offender] might say about my concerns?”


“It’s really normal for people who are being accused of sexually abusing a child to have lots of different explanations for what has happened. These explanations can be very persuasive.  [alleged abuser or offender] doesn’t want to get into trouble and wants you to believe him and like him. I am really happy for you to call me to talk about any explanations [alleged abuser or offender] gives you.”

The family’s child protection history may help you to understand how the child may have been discredited by the alleged abuser. If possible, prepare to address any labels or beliefs that discredit the child. For example, if the child’s mental health issues have been used to discredit them, talk to an expert on mental health mental health such as the mental practice leader or the Practice Advice and Support team to gain an insight into how these issues might impact on the child’s behaviour or disclosure.

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