How Do I Help My Kid Get Comfortable in the Water?

A fear of diving into the deep end is natural, but Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers step-by-step approaching pool-time and other often anxiety-inducing endeavors.

A child wary of jumping into the pool
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-Pool Party Pooper

My 8-year-old is invited to a few pool parties this summer, but doesn't want to go because they're still scared of diving in, so to speak, despite (reluctantly) taking swimming lessons, which they quit after a year. How do I help my kid get comfortable in the water?

—-Pool Party Pooper

The natural human impulse to avoid what we fear is rooted in evolution, because that fear saved us from predators by giving us the adrenaline to run away. When the fear itself is not life-threatening— like a lion on the savannah—avoidance doesn't save our life. It intensifies the fear and makes it last. Kids avoiding what they are scared of is common and challenging, but important to address, especially when a fear interferes with being social and having fun!

Often, these types of fears come with other forms of anxious thinking, so I'm guessing your son may be wired on the anxious side. With that in mind, the following tips are meant to be gentle and supportive with just the right amount of nudging.

One Step at a Time

I'm going to share how I would approach this with a child in my therapy office, but the truth is it's probably even more impactful for a parent to do it, and it's totally possible. You truly do not need a degree in psychology to take these steps!

  • Understand his experience. Before addressing the fear itself, it's important your child feels like you understand it. If you haven't already, ask questions to explore his fear of the water. What is he actually scared of happening? When he thinks of getting into the pool, what does he notice his body feels like? (You can give him examples that when people feel scared, they can feel tense, fast heartbeat, trouble breathing, etc.)
  • Show empathy. This can be as simple as reflecting back what he says, "so, you're scared of falling to the bottom of the pool." It can be hard for adults, but it's really important to do this before telling him why he doesn't need to be scared. Avoid the temptation to immediately say, "but you know how to tread water and grab onto the side."
  • Find his motivation to change. It's easy to project our motivation onto our child ("but you'll have so much fun at the pool parties!") but that is not going to be as powerful as his own. Guide him to think about possible advantages of facing his fear: "Pretend there was a magic genie that made your fear of water disappear. What would be different? What could you do that you can't do now, and how would that feel?" Hopefully, he comes up with a little kernel of motivation. Most kids do. If he doesn't, there may be other fears at play, such as some social anxiety about the pool parties.
  • Involve him in an action plan. A proven way to work on a fear is to take it on one step at a time. In psychology, we use a "fear hierarchy." which refers to listing steps related to the fear in order of how scary each one is, from least to most. For example, least scary is sitting poolside, next is putting his feet in the water, and most is being fully submerged in the water. Encourage him to push past a zero-level fear like staying far from the water, to test out what maybe a three on a scale of 1-10 (e.g., putting his feet in while he sits on the side).
  • Find the grey. Black and white thinking is a common aspect of anxiety. In this case, a black and white choice would be either go to a pool party and swim or don't go to the pool party. The grey area is realizing that he can feel scared of the water and still go to pool parties. Set a goal for each time he goes to a pool party to do a little more in the water than the time before (the hierarchy steps from the above tip). This approach gives him a sense of control over the process, and with your encouragement, confidence that he can conquer the fear at his pace.
  • Focus on and celebrate each triumph to keep building his confidence: "You thought it would be scary to sit on the steps up to your waist, but you did it! I know you can do these hard things."

The good news is that at age 8, your son may be able to manage his fear in more effective ways than when he was younger because of how thinking abilities change around this age. He likely has more insight so he can more fully use all of these steps with your support.

Parental Anxiety

There's no way to give guidance about a child's anxiety without addressing what we know about parental anxiety. We may also be fearful and project this fear of the world onto our child by overly focusing on caution. Or in this example, we push harder and faster for him to swim because we worry about his well-being over the long-term. The third possibility is that we accommodate the anxiety, which means we cater to it by helping our child avoid what makes them fearful. This does not fit your situation, but it's important to mention because we can accommodate without even realizing it. (This would look like the whole family staying home from water-based activities because of the child's fear.)

The Bottom Line

I have faith that your son has a future of swimming carefreely at pool parties for years to come. Use these steps to take on his fear of water one step at a time, and with your love and trust that he can do hard things, change is possible. He has the advantages of a young brain that can think about the fear, but also rewire his fear with new behaviors. But what he has working for him most is a parent who wants to support him facing this fear so he can live a fuller life.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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