Child scared of water? How to empower children in the water and build confidence for life

child scared of water

Today, we’re diving into an important topic that every parent can relate to: helping our precious munchkins conquer their fear of water. Child scared of water? We’ve got you covered with tips, tricks, and plenty of mummy magic to make splish-splashing and swimming a breeze courtesy of Selena Willows, CEO Swim to Safety.

Got a child scared of water? Then join us on this watery adventure as we uncover the secret to transforming those timid tadpoles into confident little swimmers! We’ll explore the reasons behind their water worries, share heartwarming stories and, of course, spill the beans on some fantastic water games and activities that’ll have your kiddos begging for their floaties.

So grab a cup of tea, put your feet up (if you can find a spare second!), and get ready to dive deep into the wonderful world of childhood water fears. We’re here to support you, cheer you on, and provide all the mum-approved tools you need to turn water woes into water wows. Let’s make a splash together, mama!

The importance of teaching children not to be afraid of water

A fear of the water at a young age may seem like no big deal and in fact, for most children, it isn’t and is quite normal. It can help keep them safe from accidents until they are old enough to learn to swim. That being said, fear does make teaching children more difficult and most swim instructors are not equipped to manage the emotional needs of your child.

As common as it is for children to learn to swim much later due to this, a delay in learning to swim can causes a bigger problem for many later on.

Around the age of 5-6 children go through a developmental milestone that integrates current realities more firmly. Maintaining a fear of the water through this milestone, even a seemingly irrational one, can cause the child to never truly be comfortable in the water. Though there are many adults who live very full lives with unease in the water these people are unfortunately at higher risk of drowning.

Swimming relies on calm. Our bodies float only when we submit to the water. A person who is not at ease in the water will find swimming more onerous and should they begin to panic will likely need help to get out of the situation they are in. Once we have begun to panic in the water there is not much we can do to save ourselves and children who take fear past this developmental milestone can experience it come up for the rest of their lives putting them at a much higher risk of panicking and therefore drowning at any stage in life.

child scared of water

How parents can help a child scared of water to overcome their fear

Parents are uniquely positioned to help their children overcome fear of the water. As the person your child trusts the most, with the right approach, a child can learn to enjoy the water, even if they are terrified and combative at bath time.

I would argue that though a part of this fear is innate and normal, parents have been conditioned by anti-drowning campaigns to believe that children are at risk of drowning anytime they are by water, even when adequately supervised, and this is causing more fear than is strictly necessary.

As parents, our children look to us to gauge situations. Just like a child who falls will look to their caregiver prior to reacting, a child by the water also looks to their caregiver for information. When we pull our child away from the pool and tell them it’s dangerous or that they might fall (or worse) we are giving them not only verbal indication that they should be scared but typically we don’t do this in a calm way and are therefore also giving our children valuable feedback about our state of being and what we expect of their state of being. If we are afraid of the water for them they will be afraid of the water.

In attempting to help your child over this there are many considerations. On the one hand we don’t want a child to be fearless, even when they are capable in the water but we also don’t want them so afraid that they refuse to learn. To find this delicate balance parents will need to give up their own fear and anxiety around the pool.

Practical tips to reduce worry

1- Teach your child to explore the water from the deck safely – on their belly. A child who is crouched by the water is much more likely to topple in setting off all your fear and anxiety and feeding theirs. By teaching your child to lie on their belly on the deck they can be part of pool time without nearly as much danger of falling in.

2- When your child is around the water, rather than following them around and getting frustrated at their insistence at being so close to the pool, put them in a certified lifejacket designed to keep their face clear of the water. This way if they fall in it can be a natural learning opportunity for them, and you’re less likely to panic and yank them out of the pool roughly. This way, you can calmly pull them out, place them on the deck right where you are, and ask in a playful voice how they got so wet because don’t they remember no going in the pool without mommy…. This keeps it light and will help them feel safe when it’s time to learn.

3- If your child ever does fall in the pool without a lifejacket rather than yell and scream CALMLY pull them out and then gently ask them what happened. When the adults start panicking the children don’t know what to do and they internalise all the chaos around them. In my practice, I see many children who are newly afraid of the water and some digging usually indicates that the fall itself was not the problem. Rather, the strong reactions around them are what caused the fear for them.

Specific techniques or games that can help a child scared of water to be confident swimmers

One fearful child in particular, after a fall in the water complete with yelling, blame, and a trip to the hospital, told me that she wasn’t afraid of the water at all, she was afraid that if she want back in the water her mommy would take her back to the hospital and THAT was scary. Our reactions really can change a child’s perspective of the world around them.

Confidence in the water comes the way confidence on a bike does. With time and practice. Not in 30 minutes of prescribed movements but through exploration and play.

Helping a child become confident in the water necessitates that the child feels like they are capable and so far the only way I know to help a child earn confidence through capability is through exposure. More time in the water. Take your children to the pool. Swim with them. Allow them to jump in and swim back to the wall over and over, allow them to try to swim farther than they can and simply swim next to them, present as their safety net as they learn their capabilities and limits in the water.

The work you do now in allowing them to explore and challenge themselves beyond their limits with you as their safety net will help keep them safer later in life – especially through the dangerous teen years when drowning rates spike again. A child who is confident but knows their own limits and is allowed to explore them will make much better decisions for themselves than a child who has been told that they are not capable – once there is no one there to tell them they can’t they WILL try. It has always been my opinion that children should learn their own limits through trial and error so they don’t accidentally exceed them without a safety net later on due to their own ego or peer pressure. To me, this is the best way for children to become capable and confident both in the water and in life.

Address any water-related fears

Start slowly. Ask lots of questions and be open to whatever your child tells you. Your child may have gotten shampoo in their eyes once and it ruined the whole thing for them or, your child may not even be afraid of the water itself. I had a client in one of my programs whose son seemed terrified of the water. At bath time he would scream and cry and try to escape the tub and she thought that swimming lessons would be a nightmare. When we started working through his fear it became evident pretty quickly that the water was not the actual problem. With some gentle digging, we were able to uncover that this poor little three-year-old was afraid he would go down the drain with the water at the end of his bath…

I have found in my over 28 years of coaching that when a child is truly afraid of the water the only way to address it fully is through exposure and confidence building. In essence, you have to teach them to swim. If you’re still working on bath time, calm conversations prior to and post-bath time help. Ask your child lots of gentle questions as to what they are worried about or don’t like about bath time. Give them lots of reassurance that you would never let anything bad happen to them and allow them to really explain their reality to you as you acknowledge everything said, as silly as it may seem to you.

The role of parents as confident swimmers

As with anything we want our children to learn, modelling behaviour is very important. Not only do children who have parents who swim become stronger and safer swimmers they also learn to swim much more quickly. Beyond that though, any parent who plans to supervise swim time MUST know how to swim. Though anti-drowning campaigns teach parents to keep their eyes on their children this is incomplete messaging. Not only do parents need to be able to jump in to help a child without putting themselves in danger but they also need to be able to recognise a problem before it becomes an accident.

Not only must parents know how to swim they should also be equipped with some basic water safety and first aid.

How long it takes for a child to become a confident swimmer

How long it takes for a child to learn to swim and be confident in the water can differ greatly depending on the instructor, the method used, and the involvement of the parents or primary caregivers.

Not all programs are created equally and not all instructors are either.

In traditional programs – ones found at the community centre and most independent swim schools – swimming is taught in the same way as it is taught to adults. Children must learn to float on their back in order to progress and are taught strokes that require a level of coordination and proprioception that they just don’t have yet due to natural development. This can cause progress to be very slow and for children this can mean a deflated sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. For many children this means that independence and confidence in the water – being able to swim, turn around, jump in on their own can take till 6-7 years of age and in many cases much longer.

Most traditional instructors are not equipped to manage a child’s strong feelings around the water and as such there is very little learning that happens for children unwilling to participate. Unfortunately, parents often think that the solution is 1:1 instruction, which can help, but will still use the same method as the group lessons within the same school.

My own learnings

Eight years ago I decided to take a deep dive into this problem as my own children were struggling with traditional lessons. What I found in my research and testing was that by placing the focus on what a child that young can already do, and staying in tune with their emotional and physical state during practices, children learned far faster and became far more confident at a much younger age. In fact, our testing, which included over 2000 children as young as 18 months showed a 99.7% success rate in children 2.5 (30 months) and up.

By teaching children to swim like we would teach them to ride a bike or snowboard, rather than a series of movements like a dance choreography, children are encouraged to focus on finding that sweet spot – like learning to balance on a bike or board rather than memorising the movement patterns they are trying to replicate making the whole process much faster for everyone.

A change in approach

With just a change in the approach we take to teaching our children to swim we can help reduce their risk of drowning at a much earlier age and provide them with a healthy activity that they never want to stop. Imagine your three year old spending hours jumping in and returning to the side on their own as you watch them become stronger and more proficient with every swim; not to mention wearing them out without wearing yourself out 😉

When taught this way, testing shows that a three year old will learn to swim, even if they won’t put their face in the water before the first practice, in just ten lessons of under ten minutes, and that’s being generous as most children in testing swam by day 4-5 and by day 9 were jumping in and swimming back to the side on their own as well as able to self-rescue during fall simulations.

When children, in the care of a trusted adult, are encouraged to learn through exploration and mini challenges that build up to the goal of being able to swim independently they progress a LOT faster and develop a good balance of confidence in their abilities with a healthy respect for the water.

Traditional lessons do a wonderful job at helping children become more at ease in the water with mummy and me classes, and they do a wonderful job at refining strokes for children who want to be fast in the water but they tend to miss the mark for getting most children over the hump, putting children at increased risk as they sit in limbo; comfortable in the water but not yet capable.

Additional safety precautions

Jumping is a lot of fun for children, even non swimmers but there are some safety concerns with the way most parents, and indeed instructors encourage this practice.

When encouraging a child to jump in the water we have a habit of standing out from the side and asking the child to jump straight to us. For many children this means that their head won’t go under the water when they land in their parents arms but aside from not helping your child practice going underwater there is also a concern.

Having been in water safety for over 28 years I have seen firsthand what happens when a child changes their mind, second guesses themselves, or just doesn’t jump far enough… Rather than being away from the side and encouraging your child to jump TO you, the safest position for parents is right beside the child to ensure they clear the side. I have seen too many children miss their jump only to hit their tailbone, or the back of their head on their way into the pool.

Though your child wants to jump to you to be caught I always recommend that if your child is able to swim even if it’s in their floaty that parents stand next to the edge and encourage their child to jump far by holding up a hand to give a high five and making sure they clear the deck as they jump. Yes, they will have to get used to their face going under (this good practice) but they’ll also be practicing swimming back to the side on their own.

This way, you can have your child jumping into the pool while you hang onto the side or the ladder -because we only jump in the deep end- as your child wears themselves out without wearing you out, and if they need help, you’re within arms reach.

Dealing with signs of fear or resistance towards swimming

Practice makes perfect. As with any body skill the only way to really be comfortable doing it is by practicing. Getting into the water with them and showing calm enjoyment consistently can make a huge difference. Barring that, learning to swim should be, in my opinion, treated like wearing a seatbelt in the car. A non-negotiable that happens because, as the adults, we are in charge. If you see swimming as a necessary life skill then it’s no different than the seatbelt and you can help your child understand that the way you helped them understand that brushing teeth is non negotiable or that poop goes in the toilet.

At the end of the day, the best instructor for your child is going to be you. If your child is afraid they will need someone they trust to help them through this challenge and who better to bond with them over this than you? Your child already trusts you, they already want to make you happy, and learning how to help your child through this will better equip you for challenges later on by enhancing the trust your child has in you. Plus, in my 28 years of coaching I have never seen children learn more quickly than when parents apply the Swim to Safety method. Our instructors do a fantastic job and I’m REALLY good at what I do but no one knows your child like you do and that makes parents the best instructors to help their children turn fear into confidence the water.

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