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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Kids Enjoy Their Summer with Sitters, Science and Swim

As we continue through summer, the kids may be feeling a bit bored from the same routine. Check out our guest post from Lindsay on creative swim activities that they can do with a babysitter or parent.

Sitters, Science and Swim

My kids love spending time at the pool during the summer, and my husband and I have found that it is a great activity for them to do with the babysitter when she watches them a couple of days each week.

But while I know they need to be able to enjoy their break from school, there are so many valuable learning opportunities available during the season that I hate to pass them up. So, my sitter and I have been working together to find water-based activities that will keep my girls active while also teaching them a little something in the process.

If you go this route with your sitter, be sure, first and foremost, that they’re capable of keeping your children safe by the pool. At the beginning of the summer, my kids’ babysitter and I sat down and went over some of the water safety tips provided in this piece on pool parties. It provides a good overview of things your sitter should look out for when swimming in a crowded community pool. You might also have them spend some time looking at PoolSafely.gov—it provides more great resources on water safety.

My sitter and I found many great activities for her to do with the kids. Here are a few science-based lessons that she highly recommends:

Swim Physics – Of course, successful swimming has a lot to do with physics. For older kids, this article from RelaxnSwim.com is a great intro into physics concepts. It includes information and diagrams that teach them about buoyancy and drag and how they contribute to someone becoming a stronger swimmer. After your child has read the material, your sitter can ask them to demonstrate what they learned the next time they’re at the pool.

Make Lightning – Nothing ends a fun-filled day at the pool faster than a lightning storm. So, whenever your sitter has to head inside with the kids, this activity from LearnPlayImagine.com, which shows how to make lightning with a balloon, spoon, aluminum tray, and Styrofoam plate, is a great option. As your children work on the experiment, your sitter can teach them about why they must get out of the pool when there’s a possibility of lightning.

Tide Pool Science – Chances are at some point this summer you’ll go on vacation. If you have plans to go to a beach, this tide pool activity is a fun way for your children to learn about the ecology of tide pools while also teaching them how to stay safe around natural bodies of water. From BuggyandBuddy.com, your kids and their sitter can follow the directions and build a model tide pool. Then, they can add and remove water to imitate the tide.

Sink or Float: A Science ExperimentEducation.com notes that this is a great way to introduce the Guess and Check Method. Your sitter can gather a few items by the pool. Then, they’ll have your kids guess whether those items will sink or swim. Next, they’ll test each one to see if their hypothesis was correct.

Time in the pool should certainly be fun, but it doesn’t have to be without learning opportunities. In fact, being in the water offers many teachable moments. These activities are easy enough for your sitter to do with your kids, and they offer a great way to keep everyone engaged while also reiterating the importance of water safety.

Lindsay M has many passions, including cooking, biking and photography. She also enjoys writing for PublicHealthCorps. She is happily married to her high school sweetheart and is the mother of twin girls.

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