Preventing and Overcoming Apprehension of Water

by Mario Vittone

To become a swimmer your child has to first want to be in the water. Some children develop apprehension towards swimming that can stop their progress. To overcome this apprehension of water, you have to understand why it may be there in the first place, and then work to develop trust with your child where water is involved.

Parents should know that outright fear of water (aquaphobia) – characterized by screaming, panic, and avoidance of all contact with water including baths – is a situation that requires professional help. But general unease around the pool is something that parents can address.

Most children are naturally drawn to water, but there are several ways that apprehension can creep in. A child who is uneasy around water usually has a reason. Here are some examples of situations that make early swimmers not want to even try:

Your Apprehension

“If mom is afraid of the water, maybe I should be, too!” Children pick up on your apprehension of water first. If you aren’t a good swimmer and it doesn’t look like you are having fun, it’s going to be hard to convince your child that they should get in there with you. Non-swimming parents need to take lessons before trying to teach their children how to swim. I’m not suggesting that you have to become a fully qualified swim instructor (though that couldn’t hurt), but at least get to a place where you are comfortable and a strong swimmer before being responsible for your child’s introduction to the water.

Early Experiences

If an adult ever told a child, “I won’t let go,” and then let go of them in the water, that child will find it harder to be trusting in the pool the next time. Early childhood experiences in the pool should be fun and easy. Your toddler doesn’t need to swim on their own or learn to float on their first (or even tenth) day in the pool. What they need is to feel secure, to have fun, and to learn to enjoy the water.

Make sure these early exposures are about fun and play and always be right there to help them and support them if they need it.

Dad and baby in the water

Baby Steps for the Babies

If your child doesn’t want you to take them out into the pool, don’t force them! Dragging them out against their will might not be the best idea. Instead, let them simply sit on the edge, or on a shallow step and play. Stay close and make the experience easy and fun.

Next, you can play games with the water. Splash and play with the water yourself first, and see if your child will mimic your behavior; splash water on your arms, and then your shoulders, and eventually on your face and head. You can use a plastic cup to pour the water on your head, showing your child that it can be fun.

As they get more comfortable, step things up and encourage them to splash you or have them pour the water on you and then themselves. These gentle and unforced interactions with you can build their trust and increase their comfort with you in the pool. Remember, there is no hurry and no need to pressure the child to go further. Just keep having fun and making the water about play, and slowly the apprehension should fade.

Stay Close and Be Supportive

Remaining within arm’s reach of your child (touch supervision) is vital for safety and also critical for trust. This is where the use of flotation devices like the Sea Squirts Swim Assist Vest can really help. They can make your child feel more at ease and they are fun for kids to wear. Remember, you want the water to be about fun for your child, and the right support can help the apprehensive swimmer venture with you out into the water.

Another way you can expose your child to the world beyond the edge of the pool is to pull them through the water on a small raft or even a SwimWays Kickboard. Have them hold on as you pull them through the pool and let them enjoy the ride! If you said you wouldn’t let go, then don’t let go. Just be there with them and make the experience positive.

SwimWays Sea Squirts Swim Assist Vest

It Doesn’t Have to Happen Today

Remember, there is no rush, all progress towards confidence is good, and no step is too small. Each push forward is gentle and the things they overcame earlier should be reinforced. Don’t make the work an all-day affair; end each day’s lesson on a positive note and talk about how much fun they will have the next time they swim. Tell them, “Tomorrow you can go even farther!”

A child’s apprehension around water can definitely slow progress when learning to swim, but it can be overcome with a gentle and unforced introduction to all the fun that can be had in the pool. You don’t need to be overly concerned or put pressure on them. Just develop their trust as you help them experience water in a way that is fun and makes them look forward to trying again tomorrow.

Mario Vittone - Water Safety Expert

Mario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
Mario’s Blog | Facebook Page

6 thoughts on “Preventing and Overcoming Apprehension of Water

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  5. Sue

    Mario, I enjoy your blog very much. Wanted to share my experience with you.Although I am now 62 years old, I still have an extreme fear of the water. It came about when I was 8-years old. We were boating on Lake Huron, with my uncle. I was in awe of the magnitude of the lake, and asked my uncle how deep the water was, he replied “oh, about 200 ft. deep”. Less than 5 minutes later, he threw me in the water! I almost drowned,knowing I couldn’t swim. We were on a sandbar, and the water there barely covered my shoulders, all I had to do was stand up! However, at that age, I didn’t even know about sandbars, all I knew was I was in 200 ft. of water! During my life, I have really tried to overcome my fear of water, but if I can’t easily touch the bottom, I become irrational, panic, and have almost drowned at least three other times in resonabley shallow water. Just a warning to adults out there, be very careful with children and don’t make their early experiences around water a terrifying one, that could, perhaps, last a lifetime.

    1. SwimWays

      Hi Sue!
      Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We’re so sorry you didn’t have a great first experience in the water. Hopefully others can learn from your story and take a safer, more considerate approach when it comes to teaching children how to swim.

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