It may come as a surprise for some parents who’ve seen their children enjoy bath time or even swim time in their backyard pool and then watch that same child cry once handed off to a swim teacher. “But they love the water!,” is a phrase I commonly hear after asking the parents if this is a normal occurrence. After teaching all levels of swim lessons for three years, I’ve noticed that these teary-eyed moments generally occur for the same reasons. Here are the three reasons I’ve found that kids often cry during their swim lessons.
A new environment or uncomfortability
As adults, it’s easy to forget that kids often don’t know how to react in new environments––school is a perfect example of that. This is especially common in babies and toddlers, who are just getting used to life outside of their parents. Therefore, being in a new environment with new people may cause them to feel afraid. If they’re old enough, reassuring them that the teacher is kind and fun will help. If the child is three or younger, it may mean that the instructor has to progress through the skills more slowly so the child can build a trust with them. Doing this will allow the child to become more comfortable with “scarier” skills, such as putting their face in the water or doing rainbow arms by themselves.
Even more tangible factors such as water temperature can cause a child to cry as they try to express how “something’s wrong.” This is why organizations such as the Aquatic Exercise Association recommend a higher water temperature for younger children. Some kids even hate the idea of being in 3-ft deep water, so using additional aids like swim platforms or bar floats can help a child feel more supported.
I clearly remember a one-and-a-half year old student named Elizabeth, who was once in my parent-child class at another swim school. This girl had the brightest smile, loved to laugh, and was astonishingly comfortable in the water for her age. Due to her advanced capabilities, I bumped her up to the toddler level, which meant her parents weren’t in the water with her. The next lesson, she was with another instructor, and the change was astonishing; I could hardly believe I was looking at the same kid from the previous week. Instead of being calm and enjoying the water, Elizabeth cried throughout the entire lesson.
The new instructor tried the next week, and I even got in the water for the first five minutes of that lesson to create a smoother transition. Elizabeth still cried just as hard, and she eventually vomited. The deck supervisor and I both knew what was going on; this was a clear case of separation anxiety. We both felt that this girl probably wasn’t away from her parents much except during swim lessons. The parents decided it was best for their daughter to take a break for now until she felt more comfortable being alone with another person, but whenever possible, there are ways to get around this. The most common way I’ve seen is having the parents sit on the side of the pool, far enough away where the child can’t physically reach them yet can still see them. It doesn’t work for every child, but most children will calm down if they know that mom or dad is close by.
Fear of the water
This factor is separate from the environment because this is fear that is not general; instead, it’s a fear driven out of a traumatic water-related experience. I’ve seen children come through the programs at different swim schools, where I’ve either lifeguarded or taught, who take a very long time to progress through the program. After hearing their stories, I can understand why. It’s an all-too-common narrative of the child falling into a pool, or going underneath the water for a while, without help. Thankfully, programs like Stop Drowning Now and the creation of strict lifeguard skills requirements provide strong prevention measures. But for those who have already been through any sort of drowning situation, recovery takes a while, and this fear often lasts into adulthood.
I’ve taught a few adult lessons in my lifetime, and the most common reason the adults are in that class is because of a traumatic childhood water incident––such as the one Jennifer Aniston faced, where she rode a trike into the pool. Over time, I’ve learned that gradually letting go of the child helps them overcome this fear. For instance, I’ll hold onto their hips and let their head rest on my shoulder during a float. Then, I support their shoulders, then their head, and I eventually let go once the child feels comfortable enough. Of course, it’s frustrating when the child doesn’t progress at the same rate as others in their age group, but letting them take things slowly will ultimately help them overcome this fear; rushing things will make them even more afraid of the water.
So, what should parents do if their child cries at every lesson? Keep encouraging them through the little things they do; something as small as putting their face in the water can be a big victory! Helping them feel excited for each lesson goes a long way and can help them progress from crying to smiling moments as they learn to love the water.
Hi, my name is Jehn and I've been teaching swim lessons for three years for ages 6 months to adults. I've also worked with kids as a summer camp lifeguard and counselor. I went to Biola University and graduated with two degrees: a BA in journalism and an MA in Christian Ministry and Leadership. I love teaching swim lessons because, as a Lifeguard Instructor, water safety is a huge priority for me; teaching kids how to swim is the first step.