Spotting The Signs & More

Child sexual exploitation happens when a child has been persuaded that sexual activity is a ‘normal’ part of adult life.
What is CSE?

Spotting the Signs

  • He or she becomes especially secretive and stops engaging with their usual friends. They may be particularly prone to sharp mood swings. Whilst mood swings are common to all adolescents, it is the severity of behavior change that is most indicative.
  • They may be associating with, or develop a sexual relationship with older men and/or women (although bear in mind that the perpetrators could approach the child through a peer from school who is already being exploited, or through the youngest member of the grooming network).
  • They may go missing from home – and be defensive about their location and activities, often returning home late or staying out all night (again, perpetrators know that parents will immediately suspect something is wrong if their child stays out all night, so they may initially drop the child off at the home address and before their curfew. They may even pick them up outside the school gates).
  • They may receive odd calls and messages on their mobiles or social media pages from unknown, possibly much older associates from outside their normal social network
  • They may be in possession of new, expensive items which they couldn’t normally afford, such as mobile phones, Jewellery etc

What is trauma bonding?

The term ‘trauma bond’ is also known as Stockholm Syndrome. It describes a deep bond which forms between a victim and their abuser.

Victims of abuse often develop a strong sense of loyalty towards their abuser, despite the fact that the bond is damaging to them. Conditions necessary for trauma bonding to occur include:

  • To be threatened with, and to believe, that there is real danger
  • Harsh treatment interspersed with very small kindnesses
  • Isolation from other people’s perspectives
  • A belief that there is no escape

The symptoms of trauma bonding can manifest:

  • Negative feelings for potential rescuers
  • Support of abusers reasons and behaviours
  • Inability to engage in behaviours that will assist detachment from abusers

The ‘Survival Brain’

A sexually exploited child is often judged as if he or she is thinking from the logical part of his or her brain. It is assumed that the abuse happening to him or her is a result of ‘lifestyle choices.’

When confronted with dangerous situations, the logical part of the brain – that thinks, reasons and exercises choice – is NOT the part of the brain that takes control. The response to threat is not logical. In reality, fear activates a more primitive part of the brain responsible for ensuring survival and fear chemicals suppress the part of the brain that makes logical decisions.

The survival brain (or amygdala) is concerned with immediate survival, not long-term psychological impact. The brain will respond: ‘this won’t kill you, so freeze and endure it’. The more a person responds passively (enduring it), the more likely that this will become an automatic response when confronted with fear and sexual violence in the future.

The main survival drive is to create attachments to others. This can create a very complex situation when the abuser uses both fear and a relationship with the victim, which can make abusive relationships so complex and difficult to understand to people outside of the relationship.

When an abuser hurts the victim, although the victim may disclose the abuse to third parties (such as family members, social care and the police), the trauma bond means that the victim may also wish to receive comfort from the very person who abused them. If the abuser re-bonds with the victim, it is likely that the victim will return to the abuser and cut contact with the third party. Any contact the child has with the abuser (even a text or Facebook message) can re-bond the victim to the abuser. Whilst it can be painful and frustrating to witness this situation, the fact that the victim has disclosed at all is a massive breakthrough.

Breaking the trauma bond

There is no easy answer, but to break the trauma bond a victim needs to have alternative healthy relationships available and be isolated from the abusers for a significant period of time. This allows the child time to heal and come to terms with the trauma they experienced, re-shaping the nature of future relationships. Observing this situation, particularly as a parent, can be heart-breaking, but the consistent presence of the parent and carer means that the child is not solely dependent on the abuser (which is what the abuser wants) and has a place of safety to flee to.

The impact of child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation has a devastating, long-term impact on the child who is abused, but also for the whole family.


How does sexual exploitation affect a child?

Once a child is entrapped in a cycle of sexual exploitation, it can be difficult for their parents to understand why they return to their abusers. The best way to explain this is that the control and manipulation the child is under is very similar to that experienced by victims of domestic violence.

Repeated sexual abuse will result in fear of being blamed or not being believed, a lack of self esteem and worthlessness, but also misplaced loyalties towards the perpetrators. For many children, the abuse equates to their first experience of sex and love, of which they have no prior experience to measure it against. It is also important to remember that sexually exploited children are often explicitly threatened with violence if they disclose the abuse. It is common for their family to be threatened, so the child may feel they are protecting you, the parent, by enduring the abuse.

Sadly, child sexual exploitation can leave some young people with serious long-term emotional and physical effects. You may prefer to read about these once you have spoken to a Pace parent support worker and are certain of your child’s exposure to it. That way you can ensure you have the necessary support and knowledge in order to deal with the reality of what your child is experiencing.

For information on how to manage the everyday stress of living with child sexual exploitation, please read this guide to Living With Child Sexual Exploitation.

How does child sexual exploitation impact on the family?

The sexual exploitation of their child is a terrible thing for a parent to witness. Many parents have reported feelings such as anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, confusion and profound isolation. On a practical level, parents may find:

  • Their child may act violently or out of control. They may be truanting from school and in trouble from the police
  • They encounter judgemental attitudes from those in authority, who may adhere to the stereotype that your child is making a ‘lifestyle choice’ or merely rebelling against their upbringing
  • You may get into trouble at work for having to constantly chase up your child and locate their whereabouts
  • Your relationship or marriage may come under strain, whether you are a parenting as a couple or co-parenting due to separation
  • You may experience mental health problems or manifestations of stress and exhaustion

For a guide on how to manage the everyday stress of living with child sexual exploitation, please go to Living With Child Sexual Exploitation in our Advice Centre.

How child sexual exploitation impacts on other children in the family

Parents  often report that the exploitation of one child in the family places other children in the family of risk of exploitation at the same hands – so it is important to assess this risk as quickly as possible. In addition, siblings may be subjected to name-calling by their peers if the affected child’s sexual exploitation becomes public. Siblings may also feel that they are losing out emotionally as your energies are drained on the affected child.

Child sexual exploitation grooming models

Perpetrators ‘groom’ a child for sexual exploitation in a process designed to break down the child’s defences and existing relationships with family and friends to establish control.

‘Grooming’ is like a process of recruitment and the victims are introduced into a lifestyle which they are made to believe is normal, but which is actually abusive. This may take place online or offline and could include violence, lies, blackmail, or threats. Once groomed, the child is expected to participate in sexual activities, often in exchange for something such as alcohol, gifts, money, affection, drugs, or a place to stay.

There are different models of grooming – children might experience exploitation at parties, by groups of older men or (less often) women, as part of a gang, or even by friends their own age.

The following guide aims to help parents identify the particular model of grooming used on their child. However, every situation is different, and your child may have been groomed for sexual exploitation through a variety of tactics.

Peer on peer exploitation

Children are sexually exploited by peers who are known to them at school, in the neighbourhood or through mutual friends.

Exploitation through befriending and grooming

Children are befriended directly by the perpetrator (in person or online) or through other children and young people. This process may begin with a girl (or boy) being targeted and befriended by a youn oy or gir sually known to her as an equal, ie a classmate, a friend of a sibling, or a neighbour.

This introductory young person later introduces the child to either one or more older men, whom s/he may describe as an older sibling or cousin. The older men offer the child attention in the form of gifts, flashy cars, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

To the child, it is new and exciting. The older men treat the child as an adult and deliberately portray her/his parents as unreasonable and overly-strict, should they seek to intervene.

The ‘boyfriend’/pimp model of exploitation

Perpetrators target children posing as ‘boyfriends’, showering the child with attention and gifts to cause infatuation. They initiate a sexual relationship with the child, which the child is expected to return as ‘proof’ of her/his love or as a way of returning the initial attention and gifts. The child is effectively told that they owe the perpetrators money for cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, car rides etc and that sexual activities are one way of paying it back.

The ‘party’ model

Parties are organised by groups of men to lure young people. Young people are offered drinks, drugs and car rides often for free. They are introduced to an exciting environment and a culture where sexual promiscuity and violence is normalised. Parties are held at various locations and children are persuaded (sometimes financially) to bring their peers along.

Children are also encouraged to associate with others via social media. The parties may be held some distance from the child’s home, enabling the perpetrators to force the child to have sex in return for a lift home. Drugs and alcohol are used to suppress the children’s resistance. Images may be taken of them without their clothes for purpose of future bribery.


The grooming process for child sexual exploitation

Grooming may be a phased, gradual process used by perpetrators to sexually exploit children. It can take place over varying periods of time either online or offline – from a few days to several years.

Grooming for sexual exploitation can also take different forms, and be more or less violent. Although we talk about it as having stages, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always develop in the same way. The picture we present is to give you an indication of what could happen.

Initial contact

Contact may be direct or through a child’s school mates, friends, siblings or neighbours. Many children disclose that the initial contact was made by someone they regarded as an equal.

Examples of points of contact include:

  • home
  • school
  • shopping malls
  • entertainment arcades
  • leisure clubs
  • taxi ranks
  • bus and train stations.


After initial contact has been made, the child is then introduced to one or more older men who pose as, or are, the initial contact’s older brother or cousin. The befriending stage involves the perpetrators using coercive and non-coercive seductive and deceptive behaviour.

Exchange of favours

Following the befriending stage, the child typically feels infatuated with the older man, interprets his attention and behaviour as love and regards him as a ‘boyfriend’. The child’s infatuation can override and weaken the child’s ability to see through and resist the coercion and deception. At this point, the man then seeks sexual favours for himself and for others. The child is expected to perform sexual acts as either proof of the child’s love for this person or as a way of paying for the ‘kindness’ shown during the befriending stage. The child is normally unaware that money is exchanging hands. Although legally significant, the awareness of the exchange of money is a minor consideration. More serious for the child is the demand for sexual activity and the actual experience of it, which can be profoundly shocking and shaming. The perpetrators use the shame against the child as it makes it more difficult for the child to seek help.


When the child expresses unwillingness to return sexual favours, the perpetrators start making threats. The perpetrators gain control over the child in the following ways:

  • encouraging the child to truant from school and fear reprisals from parents and school authorities
  • showing the child weapons in the car or on the person and keeping the child under constant threat
  • encouraging addiction to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs and making the child dependent on him to supply these
  • photographing the child performing sexual activities and threatening to publicise the images
  • involving the child in criminal activities and threatening the child with police action
  • using physical violence and threats against the child and the child’s family.


In the later stages, the perpetrators build upon the alienation which may have begun in earlier stages through the child’s truanting, deception and concealment. The perpetrators continue to seek to sever the child’s links with family, friends and other support systems. Distance means the perpetrators’ activities go unhindered. The child is led further into a life of violence, exploitation and crime. The sexually exploitation process results in the child earning money to support the child’s ‘needs’ and those of the perpetrators.

Control and alienation is exercised in the following ways:

  • encouraging over 16s to seek their own accommodation in order to exploit the distance from support networks and create a widened, irreversible gap
  • proactively seeking accommodation for the child
  • encouraging the child to make abuse claims against family members
  • encouraging teenage pregnancy and then exercising further control via a baby or arranging a termination
  • creating conflicting feelings of love and hate, protection and exploitation, guilt and innocence, entitlements and duties.

Although some children are able to free themselves from their perpetrators, the whole experience, particularly when it is sustained over a long time during a period of significant personal development, can profoundly change the child’s personality and affect their life prospects and chances. This includes the child experiencing significant psychological effects and extends to the child facing adverse social and economic consequences.