Triggers and warning signs

This module will help you to explore:

  • different types of triggers
  • your own triggers
  • potential warning signs of sexual abuse, including grooming
  • situational and environmental risks.

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‘Triggers’ are what precede (come before) your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and can cause emotional and behavioural responses. Alternative words for triggers include ‘cues’ and ‘prompts’.

  • Internal triggers means that they come from inside of you and include thoughts, feelings and attitudes linked to lifestyle problems. Examples of internal emotional triggers are feeling discontented, frustrated, bored, resentful, stressed and anxious.
  • External triggers come from outside of you and include things that can be seen or heard, like a police car with its sirens on. They can be situational and come from our daily routines, e.g. walking through the kitchen may trigger us to open the fridge; walking in the park may trigger sexual thoughts about children. They could also include drugs, medication and substance misuse.

Triggers often come at the beginning of a behavioural cycle; prompting a specific behaviour and a subsequent behaviour chain. For this reason, being aware of your triggers is essential so that you can increase your ability to stop the cycle at the earliest opportunity.


On a piece of paper, create a table like the one below and make a list of your ‘internal’ (including emotional) and ‘external’ (including sights and sounds) triggers. It is likely that you will come up with a number of triggers; some will be unrelated and work in isolation to each other, whereas others will work in combination.

Internal External
Lonely Walking past a school

Warning signs are the things that alert us and other people that something is wrong or that there this a potential danger or hazard. With regard to sexual offending it includes physical, behavioural and emotional signs in children and adults.

Physical warning could be noticing a person has stopped shaving and looking after themselves

Behavioural warning signs could be that a person is refusing to leave the house

Emotional warning signs could be that a person gets angry very quickly

Here is a list of warning signs that a person might recognise in themselves:

  • Experiencing sexual thoughts about children that are difficult to manage
  • Experiencing thoughts that justify sexual behaviour with children
  • Isolating themselves
  • Making excuses to be around children
  • Seeking out the company of children, particularly alone with children
  • Making excuses not to see family/friends
  • Experiencing the urge to go online and view sexual material
  • Masturbating to fantasies about children
  • Engaging in increased masturbation
  • Feeling anxious about their thoughts and feelings
  • Experiencing negative feelings e.g. stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression, angry, hopelessness
  • Not allowing a child sufficient privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters
  • Insisting on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it
  • Spending most of their spare time with children and having little interest in spending time with people their own age
  • Treating a particular child as a favourite, making them feel ‘special’ compared with others in the family
  • Becoming fixated on a particular child
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling sad
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling angry
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling suicidal

This is not an exhaustive list. The warning signs will be different for everyone so it is important that you consider what your personal warning signs are. There are likely to be other warning signs which are relevant for you.

Positive feelings also influence behaviour. It is not always obvious what people are feeling but there can be ‘clues’ based on body language and on what people say and do. It is important that you consider those ‘clues’ so that they can help you manage your thoughts and/or behaviour when needed.


Write a list of your physical, behavioural and emotional warning signs and answer the following questions.

  1. What would you do if you recognised these?
  2. Who needs to be aware of these signs?
  3. What might others observe in you that could indicate a warning sign to them?
  4. How might others be able to help you?
  5. What are the benefits of someone in your support network knowing about your problematic behaviour?

Some places and situations present specific risks for individuals who:

  • have sexually abused children
  • have the urge to have sexual contact with a child
  • have sexual thoughts about a specific child
  • have sexual thoughts about children generally

Some examples of such situations include attending a family wedding where there are lots of children present or being asked to baby-sit; and these situations become even riskier if combined with inappropriate thoughts and feelings towards children.

Situations can provide the ingredients for a chain of unhealthy behaviours and trigger the offence cycle. With this mind, it is vital to recognise what places and situations would be risky for you.


On the worksheet:

  1. List what these places and situations would be
  2. Why they are risky
  3. What you would do to manage them
Place/Situation How to manage
At home late at night, alone, with opportunity to masturbate.                       Do not masturbate, have a bath, read a good book.
 At a family wedding, children around, experiencing sexual urges Ensure not left alone with any children, ensure there are always adults present, distract attention into adult conversation
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