Fear of Water! How to Build Water Confidence in Anxious Children

Anxious Child In Swimming Lessons

Anxiety in the water for a child learning to swim can be a common problem but the ways this anxiety manifests can vary. A swim teacher once asked for guidance with a particular concern. She had a toddler who kept having poop accidents during her swimming lessons. After the third time of this happening – her parents took her out of the swimming lessons to completely potty train her before resuming swimming lessons. They took a few months break from swim lessons and on her return at her first lesson, within the first 10 minutes the child had another accident in the pool. The child never did this during bath time or during recreational swimming – just during swim lessons. 

One of the reasons young children keep having accidents in lessons could be anxiety. All adults can still remember how they felt when they took their driving tests or when they sat big exams at high school or university. We felt sick to our stomachs with nerves and anxiety!

Children are no different, they feel anxiety and stress too but without the verbal skills and the vocabulary to express their fears and talk about their anxieties, it shows itself in other ways.

So, if a child gets anxious in the lessons and generally about being in the water and swimming pool, unfortunately ‘accidents’ can happen.  A one-off is a different thing but happening regularly, anxiety needs to be considered as a causal factor.

If children start associating water or the feeling of being in water with uneasiness and danger, water will be a source of anxiety for these kids and it’s important to try and manage this as early as possible.

 novice is getting over fear of water with parental support.Steps to Combat Swimming Anxiety In Children

A. Identify the Source

When I see a timid child in our lessons, one of the first things I’ll do is try to find out if his/her parents can swim. 

Science tells us that parental anxiety can rub off on children so they subconsciously fear those things that parents are fearful of; it could be spiders or swimming.

A child who is tense or anxious in the water may have parents who can’t swim or who are also wary in the water. Additionally, the pressure of non-swimming parents to ensure their child MUST swim can create or exacerbate anxiety in that child.

B. Provide The Extra Help

Sometimes group lessons are not the right format for a child with anxiety.

private swim lessons in Wimbledon, LondonA one-on-one class where the swim teacher is able to provide the focused attention required, to provide the constant reassurance and security they need, just until the confidence has built up, is often a much more successful and happier experience for that child.  

C. Don’t Stop Swimming

So, if your toddler or pre-schooler is anxious about swimming, stopping swimming lessons, may not be the solution. Taking a break will not resolve any issues with regards to fear of water and sometimes the aqua phobia can get worse as children get older.

Some parents think by starting swimming lessons again when their children are older and at school (around 5 years old), they will have a better listening skills so it make more sense to invest in swimming lessons at that later stage.

Whilst this way of thinking has some merits depending on the child and every family’s circumstances, if water is the source of anxiety for your child, that needs to be to addressed separately and irrespective of your child’s age.

Regular and playful exposure to water is the best way to build water confidence.

Playful games in water to build water confidenceYou need to ask yourself as a parent ‘can I afford private lessons?’ If yes, try one-to-one lessons for your anxious child and see if anything changes.

If private swim lessons are not an option – the following steps are advised:

  • Take your child to your local leisure centre every week and have some fun ‘splashing around time’ together in the teaching pool.
  • Use toys and props to play with in the water.
  • Avoid copying what swim teachers do. Little ones love to have fun with their parents in water. Keep it fun.
  • Do this consistently, ideally weekly, over a two or three month period, and keep notes of the results.

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Comments

  1. Nice article. Sometimes making Swimming fun and simply playing games does help reduce the level of stresses.

  2. D. Zylberberg says:

    In the swimming teaching community, the difficulties that some children or adults experience with water and/or during the learn-to-swim process, a fear of water or phobia (aqua-phobia) could be identified as a source. Some may consider ‘Fear of water’a behaviour which is symptomatic of an aversion to the element water. However, this brings a question that how people who are fearful of water do wash themselves? If you are going to push the paradox even further, you can even question how these people drink? So, we must seek elsewhere the origin of this type of behaviour which leads some people to avoid the pleasures and benefits of swimming.
    In an excellent article, the English psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, evokes in the sources of early-life anguishes; the experience of “not ceasing to fall” or “the “non-stop falling” which are also expressed in certain dreams where the ground evades our steps and we suddenly awake anxious. This dream-related and psychic experience are related to the experience of birth or the feeling of emptiness which accompanies the loss of the primordial envelope, constitutes as the basis of the primary anguish according to the Psychoanalyst Otto Ranck.
    “I think that the fears expressed by some children or parents are fears of fall or loss of balance and constriction, afraid of not being able to resume their breathing again.
    From my experience and observations, I think we must work on balance and buoyancy. It is useful to use goggle to look at the bottom at the pool when lying down (with face in water) in an horizontal position, always in shallow depth, then learn to blow in the water, finally any gentle approach that does not accentuate the traumatic effects in relation to learning to swim.
    Dr Zylberberg, Psychologist, infant and early-years swimming expert and member of the French Swim Federation

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