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Fear of Water – Anxious Beginners

6 August 2020

Introduction

It is perfectly rational for humans to be afraid of entering water. We’ve become very good at knowing instinctively what is inherently unsafe, and water fits into that category. However, depending on a person’s genetics and history, the level of fear varies greatly. This article addresses when children are reluctant or refuse to go swimming due to fear of water or the unknown. This is not to be confused with the situation when a child is refusing to swim as a way of asserting dominance or control – prominent in children aged 2.5 to 4.5 years – which we will talk about in another blog.

The Problem

All parents want their kids to learn to swim and when a child is scared we start looking for the quickest way to get our young one into the water – “like all the other kids”. The most difficult part about fear is that we never really know what is causing it and we don’t know how ingrained or intense the fear is. A child may seem terrified one minute and the next minute be bomb-diving their dad with joy. Or a child may seem to want to swim and then all of a sudden panic and run from the pool – I’ve seen both extremes and all the in-betweens many times.

Sure, as parents we usually have a good idea why our kids don’t want to swim, but sometimes there is something causing our children to act very strangely that we have no idea about. The difficult part is finding that balance between encouraging our kids outside of their comfort zone without pushing them to the point where they develop an even bigger anxiety towards the activity.

The Solution

As a swim school manager the first thing we always did was reassure parents that “it is normal, and your child will eventually overcome the fear”. So if you are a parent with an anxious swimmer, it is normal and your child will eventually overcome the fear. It’s natural to imagine worst-case scenarios in which children will be left behind or lose confidence. It happened to me a little when my daughter wasn’t speaking by a certain age.

Usually when a child is scared of swimming the parent’s fear is drowning followed by their child developing poor self esteem or not being ‘normal’. The worst thing to do is assume your child is being disobedient or start threatening them as this usually makes the process longer. Children feed off the energy and attitude of the adults around them and a calm approach is needed when solving the issue of nervous swimmers.

Try your best to identify what you think the swimmer is actually afraid of. Is it separation anxiety? Some kids understandably don’t want to go into the pool with strangers sometimes and some have an intense fear of being away from mum or dad.

Is it the teacher?

I recall countless instances where teachers and students simply didn’t click. Sometimes this is caused by poor teaching, sometimes there’s just no chemistry – like me and my Year 10 Economics teacher (sorry, Mr Hutchinson). A common one in swim schools is little girls being afraid of male teachers.

Is it water itself?

Some kids genuinely cannot stand water – my friend’s daughter wouldn’t shower until the age of three-and-a-half and didn’t go near a pool until the age of five. We usually recommend parents to start swimming as early as possible, but this was a very rare instance where it was actually better to wait until it was ‘her’ decision because the fear was so ingrained.

Is it the pool environment?

We once had a really good little swimmer who had happily come to lessons for over five years who suddenly refused to get into the pool. Everyone including teachers couldn’t figure out what was happening. Three weeks later we received a phone call from her mother explaining that her daughter finally admitted three weeks prior she got her leg stuck in the pool filter and was petrified of going near it. We moved her class to the middle lane and she was completely happy to jump back in the pool.

Fear of ingesting/breathing water?

If a child ingests water or is held under they will want to avoid that feeling again and usually refuse to put their face into the water, or may refuse to go swimming all together without giving you a reason.

3 GENERAL STEPS THAT CAN HELP

1. Practice Breath Control at home

Even if you’re not sure what is causing the fear, you can always start practicing breath control at home – which we demonstrate in Uswim level 1 – Breath Control. The most stress-free way is to start without water and simply hold the breath. The next step is to introduce a small bowl or dish of water, then you can move to the bath and so on as the child develops confidence.

2. Observe other children (or animals) who your child wants to emulate

It’s very powerful for children to see others safely enjoying water and having fun. This can be older siblings, complete strangers or even animals (did you know cows are good swimmers?). The point is not to threaten or push your child into being like others with statements like ‘look if he can do it why can’t you’?. It’s to let them naturally observe and allow their internal motivation-to-learn slowly take over.

3. Start at a pool that in inviting and shallow

You want to make the first steps for an anxious swimmer as easy as possible. Dark, deep pools are not inviting for children and can increase anxiety so if it’s possible take them somewhere that is shallow and allows the child to explore safely. A calm beach is a great way for children to learn to interact with water while having the security of the ground beneath them.

Summary

It is normal for children to be hesitant about swimming. There are many things that can cause anxiety around water and it is difficult to know what course of action to take unless you understand what is causing the anxiety. In our experience, the first person who needs to relax at swimming lessons is the parent. The next thing to do is calmly begin the process of learning what is causing the fear and gradually introduce your swimmer to Breath Control.