Why is your child crying?
If you have kids, or even have been around kids, you know that there are infinite reasons why they might burst into tears. We have all seen the posts of children crying over the color of a plate or because their parent wouldn’t let them eat the toilet bowl cleaner. The reality is that crying can be a sign of hunger, sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, exhaustion or simply overstimulation. We have seen many kids come to swim lessons, their parents reassure us that they love the water, they are going to love the lessons, and then, within 5 minutes the tears start flowing. It can be hard to put a finger on what the problem is specifically. Are they struggling with separation anxiety, do they just want to play, or did they get splashed unexpectedly? There can be a LOT of factors that go into why your child seems to be so upset during lessons.
My son was the 2.5-year-old who LOVED water but, in swim lessons, he would kick and scream and cry from beginning to end. For weeks he hated even seeing the specific pool that his swim lessons were held at (while he still loved other pools). I was a little devastated. I wanted him to love the water the way I did, and it did not seem like swim lessons were helping us reach that goal. However, I am incredibly grateful that I listened to the advice of other instructors and swim moms and didn’t throw in the towel before we broke through the crying wall.
How long is it “normal” for your child to cry?
An infant’s primary means of communication is through crying and other facial/body cues. It may take a while for your infant to bond with their instructor, especially because they do not understand object permanence yet. About the time you have them dressed and leaving the lesson, they have forgotten most of what just happened. They can, however, begin to build a secure connection with their instructor over time and may begin calming down pretty quickly during playtime/cuddles. Don’t be alarmed if your child continues to cry even after achieving their independent back float (even after minutes of holding the float or several lessons after learning the skill!). It can be disconcerting when they don’t feel hands beneath them or can’t see an adult they recognize. This is why our instructors will talk or sing to them while in a back float, to help reassure your child that they are not alone.
Toddlers are less predictable. They cry for the same reasons as infants (discomfort, hunger, exhaustion) but they also start to feel deeper emotions of embarrassment, frustration, and jealousy. We have seen many kids cry when they feel discouraged that they are not progressing as fast as a younger sibling. Depending on their past experience with water, ability to communicate verbally, and emotional regulation, toddlers can often be the loudest protesters to learning how to swim. However, it is more likely that once your toddler is able to jump into the water and roll to their back without assistance, they will settle down. They begin to feel more confident and have a higher level of trust in their own abilities as they build self-esteem and confidence. They begin to feel less of a need to ask for help from their instructor. This was the case with my son! As soon as he was able to jump in without holding hands, he immediately calmed down and was able to start talking through how he was feeling with his instructor.
Older children tend to cry over more serious concerns and fears and we will often discuss this with you directly to gain more insight into how to best help them!
So, what do you do?
Here are a few tips I received from other parents and instructors, as well as some that I developed along the way:
- Make sure that you Plan Ahead: Even if you don’t think your child will cry, have a plan for if they do. Think about your child’s personality and what they respond well to so that you feel calm and able to make a decision that will work for both of you. If your child is old enough to understand, begin talking to them about swim lessons, what to expect, and where you will be before you ever get to your first lesson. You can even plan to bring them on a walkthrough of the facility before their lesson starts to help them adjust to a new environment. You can read books about swim lessons or show them pictures or videos from our social media accounts as well.
- As part of your plan, list some Calming Strategies that work well for your child. If you aren’t sure what might help them calm down, ask your instructor for some ideas. It can also be helpful to practice a few of the calming strategies before you ever get to lessons! For infants, share a few games or songs that they particularly enjoy or bring along a pacifier or waterproof toy that they find soothing.
- Recognize that Different Things Work for Different Families.
- We have worked with kids that are incredibly calm as long as they can see their parents. These parents can shoot them a thumbs up and cheer during lessons and their children respond well to this approach. This often works well with parents that feel very confident during lessons and are okay watching calmly even if their child cries.
- On the other hand, we have also worked with children (mostly between the ages of 0-4) who get more worked up when they can see their parent but cannot reach them. It doesn’t help the child or the parent to have the parent nearby and they do better when they are able to connect more with their instructor for the full 20 minutes until you come to get them!
- My son fell into the second category. I would sometimes watch my son’s lessons to take videos, but it didn’t help him during lessons to see me nearby (he experiences love through cuddles and wanted to hold me). However, being able to watch himself in the videos later did a LOT to help him process what he was experiencing, and I think they were a huge contributor to the fact that he was pretty calm within a few weeks.
- Regardless of what you choose to do, make sure to set clear expectations with your child. Have a little routine to say goodbye (hi-five, kiss, waving), tell them where you will be and when you will come get them (I am going to go sit on the couch during your lesson and I will be back after you play with toys!), and then make sure you are back right at the end of the lesson. Doing this will reaffirm their trust in you, while also allowing them to gain confidence in their instructor and themselves!
- Find different methods of Motivation! We don’t necessarily recommend bribing your child to enjoy swimming lessons because it is not the most effective method but, that being said, it can be helpful to build some rewards into your routine that are simply tied to showing up and trying. I would always bring Fruit Snacks and a Gatorade for my son to have at the end of his lesson (two things that we rarely have at home). He didn’t have to accomplish anything to get this reward, I just wanted him to have a positive experience tied to swim lessons that he could look forward to! Later, when he enjoyed the lessons more, we let go of some of the rewards because he was excited to go even when we didn’t always have them. To this day I always get him a ring pop when we go to the public pool if he will practice something he has learned in lessons.
- The most important of all of these tips is: BE POSITIVE. Focus so much on what they are doing well, even if the only positive thing you can come up with is that they went to their swim lesson at all. As time goes on, more positives will come along that you can comment on and share with family/friends. Which brings up the point: BRAG ABOUT THEM TO FAMILY/FRIENDS. Kids love to hear you telling other people what you love about them. We would tell anyone who came near us that my son was in swim lessons and that he was doing so well in them.
- I get that this one can be really hard…I struggled with it and would often remind him to not cry for his teachers, and to PLEASE listen to them. I wish I could go back and change this because I have seen such a difference in the kids we work with whose parents put this into practice consistently.
- Just like you prepare before lessons, Practice at Home after them as well! I would have my son show me how to float on the kitchen floor, in the tub, and in front of family when we told them about lessons. We would cheer and cheer and cheer, it was great. Later, when he learned how to kick, we would practice while reading books or before bedtime and cheer and cheer and cheer. Again, huge difference when it became something we worked towards consistently, not just during lessons at the pool.
- Finally, Stick With It. About 5 lessons in, I tried to take my son swimming at a local pool and he just didn’t want to go. This broke my heart and I just about gave up right then because I thought I had ruined his love for the water and in that moment, it felt like the worst parenting fail. I called our instructor, in tears, and explained how I was feeling. She asked me to bring him back just a few more times and not give up quite yet. I AM SO GRATEFUL I LISTENED TO HER. Just a couple lessons later, I watched his face light up with joy as he jumped into the water, unassisted, and floated to the surface, happily asking if he could please do that again. Just like before, I was in tears, but this time they were tears of gratitude because I was so happy to see him safe and loving the water at the same time. There is no perfect timetable that will tell you when that moment will happen for your child and your family, but I promise that it will happen.