Helping Children Overcome Their Fear of Water

Feb 1, 2021 | 0 comments

A child’s reaction to water can be as unique as the child themselves. Some children love water, bath time, bubbles; we often refer to them as “little fish” and our largest battle each day is trying to get them out of the bath to get ready for bed (I have two of these). Others, however, can feel a little more hesitation, they may love bath time, but when they get to the pool, refuse to step in. And in more extreme situations, we find kids who hate absolutely everything about water and only bathe when forced, feeling anxiety the entire time. 

“We want to give kids the chance to practice getting through difficult situations”

– Elianna Platt

For children who respond to the water in fear, and their parents, signing up for swim lessons can be an overwhelming prospect. “Being afraid sometimes is a normal, healthy part of growing up,” says Elianna Platt, a social worker at the Child Mind Institute, “We want to give kids the chance to practice getting through difficult situations, but for a lot of parents, that’s easier said than done.” Luckily, we have a few tips that will help you feel more confident about your approach this difficult situation, and help you build a plan moving forward.

First, it can be incredibly helpful to understand what is causing your child’s fear response. Some common culprits are:

  • Overstimulation at the pool (loud noises, strong smells, lots of movement)
  • Dislike of water in their nose, eyes, or mouth
  • Not wanting to get wet
  • Seeing family members who are afraid of the water
  • Being in a new place, with an unfamiliar person (swim lessons)
  • Experiencing or seeing a scary water incident

Your swim instructor may ask you or your child what you feel is behind the feelings of anxiety (it is often a combination of the causes listed above). If you are not sure, that’s okay! We can still move forward gently in guiding your child to turn their fear into trust.

Tip #1: It all starts with Validation.

It is important to realize, this fear is very rational. Your child senses that they do not have control over the water, and they have decided that that is enough reason to avoid it. In response, it is very appropriate to say something like, “I can see that you are feeling scared, that it is a powerful feeling.” Once the fear has been addressed, you can then proceed to encourage them to move forward from a place of security. Do not dwell on their fear! Address it and move forward.

Tip #2: Make a Plan

Do not assume that your child’s fear will alleviate with age or as they go swimming with friends. If you are not ready for lessons, start at home. Talk about water in positive ways. Make a plan to go to the pool as a family consistently (this can be weekly or monthly) and make it really special. You can go swimming and then go out for pizza or get them a water toy that comes to the pool with you.  When you are ready, find a private lesson where they get the FULL attention of their instructor. Timid kids tend to get left out in group lessons and group instructors don’t often have the time to guide them into trying skills in a positive way. Stick to your plan! Even if it doesn’t seem to be making headway, every positive water experience is a step in the right direction. 

A few other ideas to include in your plan:

  • Encourage water play in the sink or bathtub (depending on how deep the fear of water goes). 
  • Use sinking toys to encourage your child to put their face in and blow bubbles. 
  • Have your child hum as they put their mouth and nose in the water. Humming allows them to blow bubbles out of their nose!
  • Blow ping pong balls around the water to mimic the action of blowing air out. 

Tip #3: Stay Positive. Move Gradually

Your child will overcome this fear when they feel that they are in control. Give them time and space to do so. We have seen kids overcome their fear in a single lesson while others have taken weeks of work. Speak about their progress in a positive way, while still validating their concerns. Kids that experience strong emotions about water often benefit from watching videos of themselves in lessons. This allows them time to process what they were experiencing with a little more clarity in a place where they feel safe. Keep communication open with your swim instructor. The more that they know about your efforts outside of the pool, the more they can partner with you to create a child who not only feels comfortable in the water, but also has developed the skills to face difficult challenges in the future.

Please Don’t Give Up

Never forget why confidence in the water is so important. We cannot make sure that our children never encounter water unexpectedly, although diligence is the BEST safety precaution. We can, however, give our kids the resources to enjoy the water in a safe, positive way.

**If it appears that your child’s fear seems overly intense and affects more than just swimming, it may stem from a more severe anxiety or panic disorder and should be discussed with a pediatrician or mental health professional before starting a swim lesson program.**


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