Skip to main content

Scared to swim? Helping your child take the plunge

Published on: May 01, 2010

Helping your child overcome swimming fearsJust say the word “summer” and some kids can already feel the cool rush of water on their hot, dry summertime skin at Lake Sammamish, Lake Tapps, or wherever they go to cool off on a hot summer’s day. For some children, summer means one thing: kids swimming.

I grew up in Southern California, and I can relate. Summer for us was all about surfboards, boogie boards, and skim boards — anything that got us out on the water. We swam in the salty Pacific Ocean until our swimsuits were salt-encrusted and our faces had funny white-lined tans from squinting in the bright sun. We were on the beach from morning ‘til night, digging for sand crabs and cooling off in the sometimes ice cold water.

Parents often look forward to the day that their children can swim and enjoy those same summertime pleasures they did; to feel that complete freedom of diving to the depths of the swimming pool or lake. So what can we do when our children are scared of swimming?

Take it slow, respect the fear

Former YMCA and high school swim coach William Thornton says the first thing parents should realize is that even if they don’t think the child has any reason to be scared of the water, the fear needs to be addressed. “[The child] probably got a snoot full of water in the distant past and never forgot the panic one can have while trying to catch his breath,” Thornton says. Confidence is the number-one factor parents should work on with their children, advises Thornton. You may find you need to take your kid back a few steps.

“I once had a child so scared of swimming he had to start sitting poolside with me and dangling our feet in the water,” Thornton says. “We proceeded from there by gradually immersing his legs, then his hips, and eventually up to his neck.” Thornton says parents should never try to rush things. “Introduce breath holding under the shower,” Thornton says. “Overcome any fear that water is so threatening. Accustom him to water in his face. Challenge him to hold his breath … back away if there is hesitance. Remember, self-confidence is your guideline.”

Focus on fun, not fear

Focusing on the fun of swimming is a critical component of teaching the scared or extremely cautious child to swim, according to Cynthia Carlson, swim teacher at Niguel Shores community pool in Laguna Niguel, Calif., where my family was recently on vacation. “Using toys such as plastic watering cans, sponges and diving rings, I progressively work to get the child wet and then blowing bubbles and getting their face wet,” Carlson says. This may seem like common sense, but Carlson says it’s important not to pressure the next step. Allowing the child to choose what the next step will be can be empowering for them. “The fear of swimming can be very real, but it can also be manipulative, so taking small steps is key,” Carlson says.

Carlson stresses the importance of letting the child progress at swimming at his or her own rate. She knows that the pressure to learn to swim can be frustrating, especially if the child is scared or just lacks the desire. “The slow progress can be agonizing,” she says, “but I have seen more success with parents who allow their child to swim at his or her own progress.”

Helping your child learn how to swim

Why learning to swim is important

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2004, 26 percent of deaths of children ages 1-4 were from drowning. Drowning continues to be the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children from 1 to 14 years old (CDC 2005).

Learning to swim is important and, according to Stephanie Segovia, aquatics coordinator at Samena Swim Club in Bellevue, “There are many kids who take longer to adjust to the water and swim lessons for many reasons. … The approach that has worked the best with our most fearful children has been private swimming lessons.”

Segovia says that one student was scared that there were monsters in the pool took private swimming lessons after group lessons and eventually overcame his fear. He now enjoys swimming.

When choosing a swim program, parents have many local choices, and those choices can vary widely. Some swim programs will push your child beyond their comfort level despite tears and protests. Other programs work on a level of trust and respect for the child and will not push a child farther than he or she is comfortable. For the scared child, it’s important that you ask questions and find a swim program with a philosophy you agree with and can support for the sake of your child.

Karen Dawson, owner of Dawson Communications Group, is the mother of two boys.

How to select the perfect swim class for your child:

Take the time to consider the following four factors when choosing a swim program for your child — especially if she’s fearful.

1. Water temperature
2. Class size
3. Environment of pool and pool area
4. Style of teaching

Originally published in the May, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.

Get our weekly roundup of Seattle-area outings and parenting tips straight to your inbox.

Share this resource with your friends!