Helping your child overcome a fear of water

When a child is afraid of water, even bath time can be a struggle.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

When my daughter was a toddler, she hated to get her eyes wet in the bath. Normally easygoing, Payton would whine and squirm, launching into a full-blown tantrum the moment water splashed her eyes. Gone were the days when baby’s bath time was a sweet opportunity to reconnect.

New fears often emerge in the toddler years, and fear of water—whether tub-time nerves or apprehension at the swimming pool—is certainly one of the more common ones, says psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. Luckily, there are many ways to help your child work through the fear and get back in the swim of things.

Stuck spots
Where do fears like this come from? In young children, they’re often related to developmental advances that give kids a new (but not always realistic) awareness of potential dangers:

Nine months old
Baby now realizes he is separate from mom and dad. The resulting anxiety (most often seen in clinginess and tears when you leave the room) can “generalize” to other fears, like water.

Two years old
Two-year-olds are engaged and observant, but they don’t yet have the life experience to explain everyday occurrences. A toddler might, for example, see bathwater go down the drain, but not understand how this works. What looks like fear of water might actually be a fear of getting sucked down the drain.

Read more: Baby bath essentials> 

Three years old
Kids are more creative in their thinking, but don’t distinguish well between reality and “pretend.” They may think a monster lurks under the water or wonder if they’ll get swallowed up.

One bad experience can lead to a prolonged period of fear. A slip in the tub that momentarily dunked his face in the water or a loud motorboat that startled him at the beach can spook a child for months afterward.

Bath boosters
With bathing, it’s not really about the water, it’s about what’s happening with the water—shampoo in the eyes, a splashed face and slippery surfaces, says Schafer. Strategies should be aimed at increasing your child’s sense of control. Ask what she is afraid of and listen closely to her response. Depending on the exact worry, the following strategies may help:

Climb in
Janice Shaw, of North York, Ont., spent long hours trying to convince her toddler, Ruben, to sit down in the tub. Finally, she solved the problem by bathing with her son, showing him it was OK to relax and have fun while getting clean.

Calm the waters
If your child hates to be splashed, don’t put a rambunctious sibling in the tub with him.

Cover up
Give your child a visor, mask or washcloth to protect her eyes. There are times when Payton, now seven, still requests a cloth. Sometimes she uses it and other times, just knowing it’s handy to wipe away splashes is comfort enough.

Look waaay up
Place a picture on the ceiling to distract your child and encourage her to tip her head back for rinsing.

Let your child use a small travel-sized shampoo bottle to wash and rinse his own hair.

Make it fun
Bring out tub toys and make silly hairdos with shampoo.

Take showers
Oddly enough, some kids who hate the bath are fine with the shower spray.

Give a sponge bath
There’s no rule that says bathing needs to be an every-night routine, says Schafer, and a few days’ break might allow a young child to forget his worry.

Read more: Do my kids really need a bath every night?>

Swimming strategies
From a sensory point of view, a public pool can be overwhelming for some children—the smell of chlorine, the noise, the crowds. It can be frustrating when little Emma refuses to take the plunge while the fun carries on without her. But with a calm, consistent approach, time and a few of these tips, you should soon see progress.

First, respect that your child is genuinely fearful and don’t force him to go any faster than he is able, advises Schafer. In her practice, she uses desensitization. By slowly increasing exposure to the water, with each small step building on the last, progress can be made in increments.

“Don’t force kids who really have a fear,” agrees Tracey Warren, national director and safety expert for Child Safe Canada. “Take it back a step.”

Read more: When fear takes over: Children’s phobias> 

Judy Roche’s son, Cadell, was only two when he fell into a friend’s pool in Bowmanville, Ont. While his dad quickly pulled him to safety, he was clearly traumatized. He refused to participate in parent-and-tot swim lessons, which he had previously enjoyed. Cadell’s parents spent months reintroducing him to the water. One week, he sat on the side of the pool just watching others swim. The next week, he put his legs in the water, and so on. Now at four, Cadell goes to lessons in the big pool without his parents by his side.

Other tips:

Practise prevention
Warren recommends getting kids in the water as early as possible. Parent-and-tot swim programs are play-based, encouraging little ones to enjoy songs and water toys while being held in the security of your arms. But if a program isn’t your thing, just go to the pool and play together.

Don’t overdramatize
While you should take fear seriously, overreacting can fuel it. Express confidence in your child by telling the swim instructor, “Sarah’s a little nervous and needs time to get used to the water,” rather than “Sarah’s terrified of the pool.”

Make the unknown familiar
If the fear is specific to the lake or beach, your child may be daunted by the vast size of the swimming area or worried about what might be in there with him. Try limiting the space by picking an inlet or other small area. Use goggles or a mask so your child can see what’s under the water.

Face it
If getting her face wet is the bugaboo, sit on the side and dip a cloth or sponge in the pool and dab one another’s face so she can get used to the wetness. Have her bring a handful of water up to her mouth and blow bubbles. Blow a rubber duck across the surface, slowly working on getting the face closer to the water.

Use water aids—for a while
It’s OK to use whatever toys or equipment it takes to get over a fear, but Warren warns that it’s important to practise swimming without goggles and life jackets because accidental drowning can occur when kids fall in without their water aids and panic.

Most childhood fears will pass, either on their own or with our gentle help. Like adults, though, children may develop intense phobias that become crippling. If months pass and your child’s fear of water remains very strong despite your efforts, it may be time to see a psychologist, psychotherapist or paediatrician — especially if you can see that the fear is intruding on other areas of her life.

Tips for managing fear
1. Always take your child’s fear seriously—don’t minimize it.
2. Don’t overdramatize or draw attention to it.
3. Praise and encourage your child when he tries to overcome fear. Express confidence he will eventually succeed.
4. Find ways to break the feared experience into small, manageable steps.
5. Give your child frequent reassurance she is safe.
6. Find storybooks that discuss the fear to read with your child. Some to try:
• The Boy Who Wouldn’t Swim by Deb Lucke
• Edward in Deep Water by Rosemary Wells
• Katie Catz Makes a Splash by Anne Rockwell

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