Deeply rooted in evolution is our instinct to avoid what frightens us, with fear originally serving to prompt an adrenaline rush for escape from immediate threats like predators. Yet, when it comes to non-life-threatening challenges, like swimming, avoidance can actually exacerbate the fear and prolong its duration. The question on many parents’ minds is how they can help their child feel safe while swimming, given its importance for both safety and social interactions. Addressing this fear is crucial, as it can hinder their enjoyment and friendships if not managed effectively.
Most of the time, these fears go along with other kinds of anxious thoughts, so I’m guessing your son may have a nervous disposition. Keeping this in mind, the tips below are meant to be kind and helpful, with just the right amount of pushing.
Step by Step
I’ll explain how I would approach this with a child in my therapy office, but the truth is that a parent could do it just as well, and it would probably have a bigger effect. To take these steps, you really don’t need a degree in psychology.
- Know what he has been through. Before you talk about the fear itself, your child needs to know that you understand it. If you haven’t already, ask him questions to find out more about why he is afraid of water. What is he really afraid will happen? What does he notice about how his body feels when he thinks about getting into the pool? (You can show him how scared people can feel tight, have a fast heartbeat, have trouble breathing, etc.)
- Show you care. This can be as easy as saying, “So, you’re scared of falling to the bottom of the pool.” It can be hard for adults, but it’s very important to do this before teaching him why he doesn’t need to be scared. Don’t say right away, “But you know how to tread water and grab onto the side.”
- Find out what he wants to change. It’s easy to give our own drive to our child (“But you’ll have so much fun at the pool parties!”), but that won’t be as powerful as his own. Help him think about what might be good about facing his fear: “Imagine that there was a magic genie who took away your fear of water. How would things change? What could you do that you can’t do now, and how would that make you feel?” We hope that he will find a little bit of drive. Most kids do. If he doesn’t, he might be afraid of something else, like going to a pool party and having to talk to people.
- Include him in making a plan. Taking one step at a time is a proven way to work on fear. In psychology, we talk about a “fear hierarchy,” which is a list of steps linked to a fear that goes from least scary to most scary. For example, sitting by the pool is least scary, sticking his feet in the water is next, and being fully submerged in the water is the scariest. Help him overcome a zero-level fear, like staying away from the water, so he can try something that might be a three on a scale of 1-10, like putting his feet in the water while sitting on the side.
- Look for the gray. Anxiety often causes people to think in black and white. In this case, a black-and-white choice would be to either go to a pool party and swim or not go to the pool party. The gray area is when he realizes he can still go to pool parties even though he fears water. Set a goal for him to do a little more in the water each time he goes to a pool party (the order steps from the above tip). This way, he feels like he is in charge of the process, and with your support, he can be sure that he can get over his fear at his own pace.
- Focus on his successes and celebrate them to keep building his confidence: “You thought sitting on the steps up to your waist would be scary, but you did it! I know you can handle these tough tasks.”
The good news is that your 8-year-old son may be able to deal with his fear better than when he was younger. This is because thought skills change around this age. He probably knows more now, so he can use all of these steps better with your help.
No advice about a child’s worry can be given without talking about what we know about parental anxiety. We may also be afraid and show our children that we are afraid of the world by being too careful. Or, in this case, we push him to swim harder and faster because we care about his long-term health. The third option is to “accommodate” the anxiety, which means we give in to it by helping our child avoid things that scare them. This doesn’t apply to your case, but it’s important to bring up because we might be able to help without even knowing it. It would look like the child’s fear of water kept the whole family from going to the beach or swimming.
I’m sure your son will be able to swim without worry at pool parties for many years to come. Use these steps to help him face his fear of water one step at a time. If you love him and believe he can do hard things, he will be able to change. He has the benefit of a young brain that can not only think about his fear but also change the way he feels about it by doing different things. But what he has going for him most is a parent who wants to help him face this fear so he can live a better life.