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Stages of manipulation and coercion

The child protection organisation Barnardo’s developed a resource Working with children who are victims or at risk of sexual exploitation: Barnardo’s model of practice (2017). This resource is designed to support professionals working with at-risk young people. It was developed in consultation with young people who have been sexually exploited and reflects their experiences. It educates young people and service providers about common patterns of behaviour that are used to manipulate, coerce and entrap young people into a sexually exploitative relationship. Practitioners can also use this information to talk to young people about their relationships and help them distinguish between a loving and respectful relationship and one that is exploitative.

Under this model, the stages of manipulation and coercion leading to exploitation are explained as follows:

Targeting stage. The alleged abuser may:

  • look for young people who may already be vulnerable, for example, young people who are sad, lonely, have harmful sexual behaviours or are using alcohol or other drugs
  • watch and target the young person
  • try to understand the young person and identify their interests
  • become friends with the young person and show care for them, giving gifts or compliments
  • gain the young person’s trust
  • share the young person’s information with other abusive adults.

Friendship-forming stage. The alleged abuser may:

  • put a great deal of effort into becoming someone the young person can trust and rely on
  • make the young person feel special
  • be skilled at understanding the young person in a way others do not
  • give them gifts and rewards
  • listen to and value the young person
  • ask the young person to keep secrets about what they are doing together
  • support the young person and be their ‘best friend’
  • test out physical contact by “accidentally” touching them
  • offer the young person protection from bullying by their peers or abusive adults.

Loving relationship stage. Once they have established trust, the alleged abuser may:

  • become the young person’s ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’
  • isolate the young person from their friends and family so that they feel dependent on them (and their network) for friendship and social connection
  • establish a sexual relationship
  • lower the young person’s inhibitions, for example, by showing them pornography
  • engage the young person in illegal activities, for example drinking alcohol or taking drugs
  • be inconsistent in their affection, for example, making promises they don’t keep or being loving one day and distant the next
  • ask the young person to keep secrets about what they are doing together
  • support the young person and being their ‘best friend’
  • offer the young person protection from bullying by their peers or abusive adults.

For young people who critically value social connection and acceptance, the threat of rejection by the alleged abuser and further social isolation can be a powerful tool to ensure their compliance.

Abusive relationship stage. The alleged abuser may:

  • withdraw friendship and love
  • demand sex
  • be trafficking the young person for sex
  • reinforce dependency by lowering the young person’s self-esteem, verbally abusing or degrading them
  • isolate the young person from friends and family
  • trick the young person into remaining in the relationship by claiming they ‘owe’ them money or making other threats.


By this stage, the techniques of coercive power and control become more obvious, and the young person has become effectively entrapped. They are often isolated, frightened and dependent on the alleged abuser and it is very difficult for them to leave.

Early stages of manipulation and coercion

Gather information to identify the early stages of manipulation and coercion before the young person becomes entrapped in a cycle of sexual exploitation.

The sophisticated strategies used by abusers to manipulate, coerce and silence young people may make it challenging to identify the early stages of manipulation and coercion where abusive dynamics have not yet taken hold. This table helps practitioners to work sensitively with the young person to understand their relationship and identify sexual exploitation, before the young person becomes entrapped.

Practice considerations:

Identifying manipulation and coercion

Conversation ideas:

Talking with young people and parents

Talk to the young person about online manipulation and coercion.

Ask about:

  • usernames or comments that are flirtatious or have a sexual meaning
  • public comments that suggest a young person has low self-esteem or is vulnerable.

Some alleged abusers do not target particular young people. Instead they may send hundreds of messages out to social media, internet dating sites or messaging apps and see who responds.

Lonely young people who have limited positive social experiences are particularly susceptible to online manipulation and coercion  and may find it very difficult to give up a ‘relationship’ with an online alleged abuser who they feel understands and supports them.

Talking with young people:


“What do you call yourself online?”

“Have you got any friends online that you haven’t met in person? How did you become friends with them?

Do you have any plans to meet them?”

“Do you ever write posts about having a tough time? Who talks to you online about this?”

“Do any of your friend’s sext? Who do they sext? Have you sexted anyone?”

Talking with parents:

“Who does [young person] like talking with online?”

“What do you know about online safety?

What do you think [young person] knows?”

Talk to the young person about manipulation and coercion.

Many young people are not aware of the risk of sexual exploitation. Talking to them about sexual exploitation will help them to identify abusive relationship dynamics early, and help them to make informed decisions about their relationships.


  • explaining what manipulation and coercion is
  • explaining that sexual exploitation, manipulation and coercion  can happen to anyone (boys and girls), and that it can be hard to identify.

Talking with young people:

“Manipulation and coercion is when someone with more power makes someone think they are in a good relationship. Then when they have their trust later they can make them do things they don’t want to do.”

“What do you think would happen if [alleged abuser] wanted to do something you didn’t want to do?”

“What do you think might make it hard to know whether someone is manipulating and coercing you? Can you think of any warning signs that someone who is being nice to you has bad intentions?”


Further reading

Read Having sex and sexual offences on the Legal Aid Queensland website for information about what laws apply to sex and sexual activities in Queensland, including legal age of consent and sexual offences.

Read Online child grooming laws on the Australian Institute of Criminolgy website for information about types of offences relevant to online child exploitation.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on child welfare: online abuse. NSPCC Insight Briefing. 2020.

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