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