How to Help Kids Overcome Water Trauma

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Guest Blogger, Lizzy Bullock

In ten years of teaching swimming lessons, I’ve worked with students all across the fear spectrum. Though some students jump in the pool without hesitation, others cry at the thought of getting in the water and face episodes of anxiety when asked to perform new skills. This overwhelming dread creates a psychological barrier for kids learning to swim, but overcoming their fears is a necessary prerequisite to swimming lessons. A survey by the USA Swimming Foundation concluded that one of the most significant setbacks for children learning to swim is “fear of injury or drowning”. If your child panics at the thought of going to swim class, try these tips for working through their anxiety.

Why is My Kid So Scared?

A traumatic pool experience can be devastating for a child’s psyche. Falling in unexpectedly, being pushed or thrown in, or even hearing about the near-death experience of another person can cause emotional stress for a child. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) notes that post-traumatic stress can last months or years. As PTSD symptoms begin to emerge, your child will likely experience difficulty in learning to swim. Jeff Krieger, director of Strategies for Overcoming Aquatic Phobias (SOAP), quantifies the symptoms of aquaphobia as “[causing] increased heart rate, excessive sweating and dry mouth, trembling, nausea, fainting, severe headaches, [and] difficulty in breathing”. Beyond these, I’ve seen children sob to the point of throwing up, cling to me with their fingernails deeply entrenched in my arms, and even lose control of their bowels. There’s no shame in recognizing your child’s fears. It’s the first step to helping kids conquer anxiety and learn to swim successfully.

Talk About It

After a child experiences a traumatic event, AACAP recommends addressing the problem as soon as possible. Try to emphasize feelings of safety and support. Another tactic advocated by Krieger is to ask the child to talk, draw, or write about the situation. Ignoring the incident or avoiding conversation about it only serves to remind the child that it was a scary event that shouldn’t be relived.

I have had students who fell into the pool and had to be rescued. Though they all experienced some level of post-traumatic stress, kids who spoke openly about the experience with their parents seemed to have a better handle on their fears while those who lacked understanding of the event weren’t able to address their emotions as easily. Make a point of opening conversation about their experience and allow them to ask questions and express feelings about their trauma, rather than downplaying the experience or pretending like nothing ever happened.

Don’t Force It

A scared child is already facing enough emotional hardship. They don’t need to see, hear or feel your disappointment or frustration. They need you to remain steadily supportive and encouraging. When they push past a boundary or try a new skill during lessons, give them verbal praise, applaud for them and offer physical comfort when they get out. In my experience, children who receive positive reinforcement will strive harder, even if they’re scared. Children who feel like they are disappointing you will shut down and stop trying. Worse yet, if your child feels forced to participate in activities that scare them, their fears may deepen and trust in you may be questioned.

How Do I Know if Their Fear is Real?

When your child reacts to lessons with crying or screaming, try moving out of sight during their lesson. If they calm down and begin to work with the instructor, odds are they were crying to get their way. If their distress remains steady or increases, your child probably has a real fear of the water. Keep in mind there won’t be an immediate change of heart. Give your child at least 10 minutes alone with the instructor before your return to the deck. A conversation with your instructor will also help to determine if the fear is authentic or unfounded.

Remember, there is a difference between true fear of water and understanding the reality of water’s danger. It’s okay to talk to your kids about drowning. In fact, they’re better off knowing that it could happen. Students who know the consequences of getting into the pool without knowing how to swim are cautious, not terrified. But, children who suffer from a true phobia need steady support from Mom and Dad if you expect them to overcome their anxiety.

Author Bio: Lizzy Bullock is a Red Cross certified swimming instructor (WSI) with a decade of experience helping children overcome fear and swim independently. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.

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