My three year old son was that kid; you know, the one crying, screaming, clutching onto the wall for dear life for the entirety of his first swim lesson. That one. The fact that he was so scared hurt me; I was a champion swimmer with multiple scholarship offers from colleges across the country. I held records that are still unbroken to this day. I had taught kids and toddlers to swim as a Water Safety Instructor for over eight years. I was the coach for a competitive swim team of over 200 kids. The question begged: Why is my child so scared of the water?! And what do I do about it?" Now I know what you're thinking; "If you're such a big shot swimmer, why didn't you teach your child how to swim?" Suffice it to say that when I can’t even get my three year old to listen to me about picking up his blocks, chances are slim he’ll follow important swim instructions: Mom or Dad is too easy to tune out.
Back to the burning question I had after his failed first lesson: Why was my kid crying and what do I do about it? I’m happy to report that by the end of lesson two, he wasn’t screaming his head off. By lesson four, he would let go of the wall. By the end of two weeks of lessons, we couldn’t get him out of the pool. So what did I do and what else can parents do when a child is crying, screaming, or panicking during swim lessons?
Why Your Kid Might Cry in Swim Lessons:
Understand that there is a whole host of reasons as to why a kid might cry during their swim class: separation anxiety, fear of water, too many unknowns, the other kids splash your kid in the eye, it’s too loud, fear of strangers, bad prior experiences with water or swimming, or even things as simple as being tired, hungry, or having a bad mood day. And that list barely scratches the surface.
What You Can Do About It:
Different kids have different needs. So if your child is crying in swim lessons, the things you can do as a parent really depend on the child. As a parent, you’ll best know what your kid needs, but here are a few things to consider. For example, with my three year old, we did the following:
Do Some Work Ahead of Time:
We made swim lessons a point of conversation long before we ever got to the swim school pool. We talked to our kiddo about what the lessons were for, what it would be like, and how excited we were. His number one question: “You will come too?” Absolutely. Talking about lessons beforehand, we were able to already start addressing some of our child’s fears or concerns. The day before his first lesson, we had him try on his swim suit, rash guard, and goggles. That got him pretty excited and helped him become familiar with another aspect. We felt like it was important to have as few “new” things as possible on the actual first day of swim lessons. Even with our advance prep work, he still cried. A lot. But I think the familiarization helped the experience be less traumatic, because he was willing to go back each day.
Figure Out What Will Help Your Toddler Relax:
Here’s the bottom line. Do whatever you need to do to help your child relax and be comfortable.
For our shy guy,we decided we would sit at the end of the pool to watch the swim lessons from about fifteen yards away. We felt like it was important for our kid to be able to see us. Due to his separation anxiety, we hoped being within line of sight would help him relax. When he screamed out for us, we could wave, give him a thumbs up and show him how relaxed and calm we were. Ultimately, I think this is what eventually helped him calm down and be comfortable, knowing we were right there, but not so close that he would try to get out of the pool and run for the towel.
Different Parents Have Different Approaches:
But as a swim instructor, I saw different parents take different approaches. For some kids, it’s much more effective for a parent to stay out of sight and out of mind. One time, when I was teaching a class, I remember a mom poking her head in to catch a sneak peak of her toddler who had been swimming great for twenty minutes. The kid happened to see her and had a total meltdown. For that kid, mom needed to be out of the picture. I had another student whose mom needed to sit at the edge of the pool with her feet in the water. So long as mom was there, that little girl did great. So it really depends on the kid and their learning process.
Other Consideration to Help Your Kid Not Cry:
I’m not necessarily advocating bribery here, but think about what motivates your kid. For some, that is as simple as encouraging words and affirmation. For our kiddo, we encouraged him during his swim lesson and made sure to praise and encourage him when we got home and before he went to bed. He lives for that. Other kids might need an incentive. If promising a treat is what it takes for your kid to learn a life-saving skill, then I’m all for it. Some kids resonate with feeling like they are needed or have a duty or responsibility to fulfill. Again, understand what motivates your kid and play to that.
Be Positive, Even When It’s Hard:
Another consideration to keep in mind is your response to the lessons. If you allow your anxiety, frustration, impatience, or anger to show, your kid will pick up on it. Chances are, that will simply make the whole process harder (aka more crying in swim lessons). So regardless of how you feel, be positive and encouraging towards your child’s swim performance.
Practice At Home:
Something else you can try is practicing swim skills at home. My wife was super diligent about using bath time to have our kiddo practice his back floats, put his face in the water, blow bubbles, etc. We even went over the techniques on the living room rug a couple times. We walked around the house doing big “ice cream scooper” arms and practiced our flutter kicks a time or two. Again, familiarity and consistency go a long ways in helping a kid relax in the pool.
Stick With It!
After enough cry-filled lessons, it’s easy for parents to throw in the proverbial towel and call it quits. Don’t! Don’t discontinue those lessons. Stick with it. Help your kid learn how to persevere, even if something is hard. For many kids, learning to swim is hard! And there may be tear-filled screams. But if you know your child and try to use a tailored approach to help her relax, chances are, you’ll succeed. And so will your kid.
My entire life has been spent in and around the water. Growing up in CA, I swam competitively for 15 years and played water polo when I wasn’t at the beach! I’ve spent eight years as a Red Cross life guard and seven years as a certified Water Safety Instructor teaching classes of all ages how to swim. Additionally, I’ve taught Guard Start, survival swimming courses, and directed multiple aquatic summer camps. I’ve coached swim teams of 200+ swimmers and worked as a private coach for individuals looking to improve their stroke technique. In my mind, there’s never abad day for a swim!