Adolescent offenders are more likely to force children into sexual acts with threats of torture or death, according to the study. The assault may happen quickly and only once, and parents must be aware of what to watch for early on.
Researchers believe understanding such behavior offers opportunities to intervene before the sexual assault occurs.
The study, led by Dr. Keith Kaufman, included several hundred incarcerated, male offenders. The average age of the adolescent offenders was 16, and 41 for the adults. The average age of victims of the adolescent offenders was 9, and for the adults the average age was 11.
A vast majority of adult offenders had high school degrees, associate degrees or some college education.
Kaufman said the study, funded through National Institute of Mental Health and U.S. Justice Department, was the first time researchers measured coercion as a tool for sexual cooperation.
"We now understand that preventing sexual abuse is much more complex than just saying no," Kaufman said. "(Offenders) set up their victims by bribing them or enticing them. It's a well thought out process."
Commonly used methods to coerce children included buying them clothes and alcohol, showing them pornography and familiarizing them with sex and sexual acts and giving them money, the study found.
Parents should be on the look out for certain red-flag behavior in would-be attackers, like:
- aggressive enthusiasm to play with their children;
- adolescents who have few friends of the same age and are hanging around much younger children;
- unnatural interest in "grooming" a social relationship with children;
- bearing too many gifts of clothes and toys; and
- taking sides with children when they are being scolded.
Kaufman said an immediate effect of the study is that it has shifted previously held beliefs that child sexual offenders were reclusive and strange people. The study shows that offenders are "prosocial," often familiar and seeking social situations with children through contacts with their parents and siblings.