This is an all too common scenario for parents with their first time swimmers; you’re eager to start them in swimming lessons, can’t wait for them to learn new skills and how to keep themselves safe in water but your child however is expressing a fear of getting in the water and it can be a battle of wills to get them into their togs.

This is completely normal and something many parents experience when starting their child in swimming lessons for the first time. If being in the water (even just being in it without you) is new to your child or they’ve had a scary experience before it’s very common to see them expressing fear and resisting getting in.

So you may be wondering if it’s a good idea to leave it for now and start swimming lessons later on..

Firstly there is no right answer for making this decision for your child. It’s about what is doing what is best for them. There are however some important things to consider when making this decision, which will hopefully help with any uncertainty you feel about how the process of moving through this fear will go for your child.

Why is my child scared of swimming?

If you don’t know of any particular experience that your child had to contribute to their fear then just like many unknowns for a small child, swimming is unpredictable and new to them. A swimming pool is incredibly stimulating for a small child’s senses with all the sounds of other classes and feeling of the water. It is perfectly normal for them to feel overwhelmed while they familiarise themselves with this new environment. Psychotherapist Alyson Schafer says:” From a sensory point of view, a swimming pool can be overwhelming for some children - the smell of chlorine, the noise, the crowds. It can be frustrating when your child refuses to take the plunge while the fun carries on without them but with a calm, consistent approach you should soon see progress.

A gentle, patient approach works wonders

One of the most effective ways to move your child through this fear is firstly to validate it. As a child they look to their trusted parents and caregivers for guidance about their feelings. When they feel something they turn to you for understanding about what they’re feeling. You can reflect back to them that you’ve heard how they’re feeling by saying something like; ‘I see you’re scared about starting swimming because you’re worried about getting your head wet.’ Acknowledging that a child feels fear is a big step in them trusting both you and their teachers through the process because they feel seen and heard. They know you know how they feel and are less likely to shut down to protect themselves.

As said by Swim Right Academy; “take the time to listen to and understand your child’s fear. Often, a fear of swimming isn’t even about the water itself. Children may dislike swimming because the chlorine irritates their eyes. They may also be afraid that there’s something underneath the water. Try to get your child to explain what it is about swimming that scares them.”

It is also really helpful for your child’s teacher to have an understanding of their fear if possible so please pass this information on. If your child cannot articulate why they feel this way this is perfectly ok as well. Their teacher will get to know them and be able to assess what is worrying your child to support them through it.

Be an observer

If possible it is a fantastic idea to bring your child to the pool during our lesson times and allow them to watch. This will support them to become familiar with their surroundings, get used to the sights and sounds, as well as move through any assumptions they are making about what to expect. Take the opportunity to point out fun things, meet their teacher, and let them see that splashing, singing and having fun are all part of swimming. This can often turn anxiety into excitement for a child.

Validate, reassure and offer a solution

This is a key part of our teaching at Fulton Swim School especially with our new swimmers. Your child will never be made to do something they’re not ready to do in their swimming lesson. It is paramount to us that they feel happy and safe before being expected to master any new skills.

As teachers we too validate how your child feels. Getting water up their nose is a horrible feeling that even as adults we can empathise with. Telling them it doesn’t hurt is silly. It really does hurt! Our teaching style is to validate their feelings, reassure them they are safe and ok, and to then offer a solution. This can often look like things such as; holding them during an activity such as kicking with boards, playing a game so it feels fun, or limiting water exposure to their heads until they’re ready.

Starting at the beginning

At Fulton Swim School we have a great beginners level called Rugrats which requires no previous swimming experience and is for new and nervous swimmers that cannot submerge yet. We limit our class numbers in this level to four children maximum. This way your child receives a lot of close attention from the teacher to grow their confidence in the water.

Take it slowly when introducing your child to swimming lessons and allowing them to meet their teacher. During their class it is really helpful if the message being given by the teacher to your child is the same you are giving them. This allows your child to consistently feel reassured, safe and that they can take their time. We make a big deal out of the smallest achievements even if it is sitting on the side of the pool playing with toys happily when your child has previously been hiding behind your back. This is a big step! Another example is standing in the pool on their own two feet. This again is a big deal for a first time swimmer and something that we happily congratulate them for doing. Navigating the moving water and feeling unsteady when you’re not confident is a huge achievement.

Make swimming family fun

Getting your own feet wet at a swimming pool outside of your child’s lessons can help greatly in growing their confidence. They learn from watching you having fun in the water that they too can feel this way. We encourage families of new swimmers to take some time to all go for a swim together.

It can be challenging if your child is scared of getting into the water for their swimming lessons and spends their first couple of lessons fighting you about it. This is a very common feeling for a lot of parents and caregivers. It is absolutely worth moving through rather than waiting until later on. As talked about in our blog post ‘why is it important to take swimming lessons?’; knowing how to swim is an important life and survival skill. Water Safety NZ found that drownings for 2019 increased by 24% compared with the year before. This is so concerning and most of these drownings were reported to be preventable.

At Fulton Swim School we have highly trained and experienced teachers that will guide and support your child through their fear of water so they too can learn how to be confident, happy and safe all while gaining the skill of learning to save their life. We highly encourage you to continue with swimming lessons even if your child is nervous as this is very often part of the process regardless of their age.