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Grooming: How to know if you’re at risk

Jenny* shares her story of being groomed as a teenager in this article for Childline, a charity which works to help young people under the age of 19 in the UK.

Jenny* was 14 when a sexual relationship began with her hockey coach. He used lifts home and meals out as a way to spend time with her alone. The abuse stopped after a physical attack when she was 16, but the effects were long-lasting. Jenny suffered from mental health problems and eating disorders in adult life, eventually seeking the help of a therapist who reported what had happened to the police. Here she shares her story.

I grew up near London where I lived with my mum and my older brother. My mum brought us up by herself so I had to become independent quite quickly and was an outgoing, confident, popular, tomboy type who was sure of myself.

When I joined secondary school, I met a girl in my year who was sporty like me and we were already on a few teams together. I used to go back to her house and she suggested I start playing on the hockey team her dad helped coach outside of school. 

I was about 12 when I started training and was really enjoying it. I was talented and always wanted to get better so was happy that my friend’s dad was helping, driving me to and from training and taking us for food after the sessions. He was at every training session and he was very involved. He was in and out of the clubhouse and used to be in the changing rooms. 

Then things changed

I was about 14 when the sexual relationship began. I remember it really well because I was having problems at home so he’d sit me on his lap to comfort me.

Everyone loved him and no one would have ever thought he would do anything wrong, let alone take advantage of his position of trust within the club. 

Some parents thought it was a bit odd. There was one parent who wouldn’t let him pay for the meals he took us for because she didn’t think it was right. 

Mum once saw him kiss me on the lips and asked me why he’d done that. I defended him and said, “oh, that’s just what he’s like”. 

He’d find ways to get me alone

I was always round his house because it was a party house and we were allowed to drink alcohol and do whatever we wanted. There was one occasion where we were sitting on the sofa and he said “I want to drive away with you” which I thought was a bit odd but I just forgot about it.

Sometimes he’d take me for meals with his daughter, or other girls from the hockey team, and he’d touch my leg under the table. He used to rub my leg in the car, too. He’d always find a way for us to be alone in the car together and make sure he dropped the other girls off first. The lifts he gave me meant he had a lot of access to me that no one ever questioned, and with him being my coach, I looked up to him. He made me feel special, but no one knew about us.

There was one occasion where we were sitting on the sofa and asked if he could do something. I said yes, and he put his hand down my top. I felt responsible because I gave him permission, but I was too young to be able to consent like that.

Losing my confidence

I lost my confidence when I was 15. I started skipping training and messing about with my friend smoking in the park. I started having panic attacks during the hockey matches. I would have liked to have continued hockey but I couldn’t because I started looking at male coaches in a different light. I couldn’t bear being around them.

I even went on holiday with his family when I’d just turned 16. I always wondered why I kept going back to their house. I think I was lonely because my family was away a lot. I knew what he was doing was wrong but I didn’t know how to stop it happening. The fact I kept going back still eats me up now. 

Realising it was wrong

The day I realised it was wrong was when he physically attacked me. I saw something flash in his eyes and I just knew it wasn’t right. I was scared he was going to hurt me. Nothing ever happened again after that.

I was 16 when I first told a teacher at school but she shrugged it off as though “these things happen”. I was disappointed that nothing was done after plucking up the courage. I felt let down and like there was no point speaking out. 

Contact stopped, but he did send one more text after he saw me at his daughter’s 21st birthday party. It said, “I love you”. I called the number and heard his voice, but he didn’t text me again after that.

The long-term impact

It really affected me long term. I’ve lacked self-belief and suffered from eating disorders since was a teenager. I believe making myself sick was a form of self-harm. I have struggled with drink, drugs and smoking. I was confused about my sexuality and sought relationships with women as I thought all men were the same and I wanted to avoid them. I’ve also found it difficult to express my feelings, communicate effectively and set boundaries with partners.

I’m now in a relationship with a man but struggle with intimacy. I have frequent flashbacks and triggers intrude my thoughts and I feel anxious and depressed. 

My overall health has also suffered. I’ve had IBS, anxiety/depression, eating disorders, acid reflux from the vomiting and aches and pains. I’ve lost out financially as well, due to spending money on a therapist.

Getting therapy

I went on holiday when I was 30 and had a lot of time to reflect. When I returned I had a severe bout of anxiety which was happening more and more frequently. I couldn’t deal with it any longer so contacted a therapist. I told them about my teenage years and what happened to me and a few weeks later she said she would have to report what I’d told her. I hadn’t realised that would happen so it wasn’t really a conscious decision for me to report it officially, but I’m glad I did. It went to court and he admitted to everything but it was eventually decided I was over 16. The timings were unclear and it confused the jury so he got away with it. It was a very upsetting time. 

So much abuse like this goes on right under our noses. I’d like people to have a better understanding of what to look out for in perpetrators and victims.  I was a vulnerable teenager and he was an adult in a position of responsibility. This kind of thing affects people for the rest of their lives.  

I’d like to speak out and tell my story because I know there will be others out there who have experienced the same thing. I’d like them to feel less alone knowing they aren’t the only one. 

*Names have been changed. 

Advice from Childline if you’re at risk of grooming

Sally McFawn, Childline counsellor, said: “Grooming is a type of abuse that can affect young people.

“It is when an adult builds a trusting relationship and emotional connection with a young person so they can manipulate, exploit or abuse them.

“There is no blueprint for grooming and it can take place online or in-person, with a stranger or someone you know.

“It can be difficult to spot the signs of grooming as sometimes the person may give you lots of attention and buy you presents to try and get you to like and trust them.

“After this, they may start to turn your relationship into something sexual and threaten you with violence or give you gifts so that you don’t tell anyone.

“If you are being groomed or if something doesn’t feel right, we want you to know that it is not your fault and that you should tell a trusted adult.

“That could be a parent, doctor or one of our Childline counsellors.

“Here at Childline our trained counsellors are here to listen to any worries you may have.”

Young people can contact Childline on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk

Click here for more articles by Childline on issues affecting young people.

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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