Yesterday, while swimming with my son at our neighborhood pool, I noticed a dad with his two young children. One of his kids was happy to swim, but his younger child, a little girl who was probably about two years old, wasn’t thrilled. The dad really wanted his daughter to swim. He pulled her into the water and she cried and yelled, “No! No!” Once she calmed down, he held her hands over her ears and then dipped her backwards so most of her hair got wet. Terrified, she protested again, to no avail. Finally, after she calmed down from that, he dunked her all the way under, going underwater with her.
This child had a horrible time at the pool yesterday. She screamed and cried, “No!” but her dad didn’t listen. He wanted her to be comfortable in the pool, so he forced her to “have fun.” It didn’t work. As soon as he let her go, she scrambled out of the water and covered herself with her towel.
It can be extremely frustrating when you take your child for a swim and she wants nothing to do with it. She may be terrified of the depth, or the water in general – no matter how many times you tell her “It’s just like a big bathtub!” She may feel scared to get her face wet, the water is cold, or it’s too crowded. She might feel better sitting on the side of the pool and kicking her feet for three months, while she watches the other kids splash and swim.
I was an American Red Cross swim instructor for six years. During that time, I saw a few kids who were fearless, others who sat on the side for six weeks, and others who, with a little encouragement and a lot of trust, slowly progressed each time. I didn’t touch the terrified kids. That’s just not fair to them.
Some kids will be terrified of the water. If your child is afraid of swimming, help her through her fear with these tips:
- Keep trying, but don’t force the issue. Go to the pool a few times a week. Make it fun. If your child wants to sit on the side and kick, great! If she wants to play with a bucket by the side, let her! Encourage her to play the way she wants to.
- Go in the pool yourself and show her how much fun it is. Enter the water slowly, so she sees that she can learn at her own pace. Tell her what you’re doing and ask her if she’d like to stand on the steps with you.
- Praise her for any improvement. Make a big deal about the first time she goes onto the second step or reaches into the steps of the pool to retrieve a ball.
- Sign her up for swim lessons, but don’t worry if she doesn’t want to participate. Every kid is different and needs to learn in her own way and on her own time. Let her watch the instructor and other kids having fun and she will eventually feel more comfortable about exploring the water.
- Capitalize on bath time. Play in the bath for as long as she wants. Play with toys and create soft, splashing games. Tell her when you are going to wash her face and hair so she will continue to gain trust in her relationship with water.
- Create a trusting bond. When she wants to move forward (and she will), do only what she is comfortable with, such as taking her around the shallow end. The more trust she has in you, the more risks she will take later.
- Above all, listen to her fears and concerns. If she is shouting, “No!” respect her. She has to know, even as a toddler, that her voice has merit and that you respect her feelings and boundaries. It allows her to develop confidence in herself and the power of her own voice.
Is your child afraid of the pool? What are you doing to handle his fear?