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My son is afraid of swimming, and has been for a very long time. We first took him to baby swim classes and he never took to it like the other children in the class. I took him to swimming classes when he was three and he again was afraid and although there was progress he never gained the confidence that other children got. Now my son is 4 and we've put him in more swimming classes and he still seems terrified, some classes he cries from the beginning to the end.

I do not want my son to be afraid of the water, my thought was that if we kept taking him to swimming classes he would eventually get over it and learn to swim a bit, or at least not be afraid to get in. Now I am concerned that by pushing it when he's obviously so scared that I could turn this into a life-long aversion to the water.

What's best? Do I stop classes and wait for him to get older before trying again, or do I keep him at it until he gets over it?

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6 Answers 6

I remember hating swim classes as a child - I never did learn to swim properly, though I can tread water and get across a pool (which I eventually taught myself). I have never enjoyed it. When my kids were 4 and 5, we moved to a townhouse with a community pool. We went down there every day, usually twice a day, just to play. My kids taught themselves to swim. I would stand in the water, and they would paddle over to me. They would tell me to move back farther, and they would paddle to me again. By the end of summer, they were jumping in the deep end and swimming the length of the pool.

Perhaps you should try letting your son pace this. Give him plenty of opportunities in the water (daily if possible), be in the water with him, and let him gain confidence with no pressure. For people who are uncomfortable in the water, swim lessons can be horrible.

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I never took to swim lessons, either. I usually clung to the wall and screamed. Eventually I decided I wanted to go off the diving board and I couldn't do that until I could swim across the pool. As I grew older, I taught swim classes myself, was a lifeguard, and I'm pretty proficient in all the major strokes and kicks (maybe not the butterfly so much...). All that without the benefit of swim lessons. And I didn't learn how to swim until I was 7. Unless there's a REALLY pressing need for him to learn to swim IMMEDIATELY, letting him guide the process might be the way to go. –  Meg Coates Nov 6 '13 at 15:48
@MegCoates, you should put that as an answer –  GdD Nov 7 '13 at 11:04

On the other side of the coin, I've suffered from several phobias for many years and avoiding the stressor never helped. And in the instance of fear of water, I believe learning to swim is an essential safety skill.

My daughter, now 5.5, was TERRIFIED of water. Her first lesson, around 3, was a great way to test the soundproofing of the pool area at the YMCA. I held her while she hollered for a good 20 minutes (and while her brother, then 6 months, cried along with her 'cause when Sissy is upset then he needs to be too). After she cried for a while, she started trying to conquer her fears. Took a while, and EVERY SINGLE LESSON for at least a year was prefaced with reassurances that she was not going to drown, I was not going to let her sink, her teacher was not going to let her sink. After each lesson it was a mix of "yay, I did it!" and more tears.

However, now she can swim a bit. Not great, but she's getting there and building her confidence. And it's almost time for swim lessons to start back up, and she's looking forward to them. She still gets a little nervous, and sometimes will ask again, "You won't let me sink, will you, Mommy?" but her all-encompassing terror of being in the water is gone.

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This is something you can discuss with a good swim coach. There are various methods of starting up kids in the water: blowing bubbles, splash the teacher, swim aids, etc. A good experienced coach knows them all and may be able to figure out an approach that works for your kid. It really depends on what the stumbling block is.

We started early as we live on the water and being able to swim felt like a necessity. Two of the kids were fairly reluctant with one being a regular screamer. Somewhat different approaches worked: one needed a fair bit of distraction and lots of playfulness and mischief. The other one needed a person always close by until the felt safe on her own. The moved on to be successful competitive swimmers.

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My daughter is exactly the same way - fearful even to put her face in the water. This is despite baby swim lessons . . .

Since I grew up on an island and we still go back there every summer, we spend a lot of time in boats and around water so the water safety considerations in general as well as those specific to open water are very real for us. The rate of deaths in children due to drowning are quite high compared to other causes so I always pushed her to learn. Looking back, I might have been less pushy about it.

I have always made sure that if she was around the water she had a life vest on that fit her properly, but the lessons just resulted in a lot of screaming and were miserable for everyone. Baby lessons went alright, but she never took to it with the enthusiasm any of her cousins have had and even her first bath resulted in lots of tears and crying. She knew to be careful around water but also knew I think water is tons of fun and that knowing how to swim can free a person to have that fun safely. She knew all the safety rules and even at her cousin's house with the pool in the backyard, she never broke the rule that if she was around water she wore her vest and made sure an adult was with her (even if she hated the rule, she respected it).

Now that she is seven however, she doesn't want to have to wear a life-vest at the pool and friends were inviting her to pool parties and the like all the time last spring. She agreed to give lessons a chance and to "breathe through her fear" at an indoor and heated pool. She loves the lessons now - she sees a self-motivating reason to participate and really give it a shot. We're even listening to the Michael Phelps book, "No Limits" on CD because she is sudddenly CRAZY INTERESTED in swimming.

She still only floats on her back for a few seconds before folding up, but she has only been doing lessons for about a month and a half and she is A LOT more comfortable now.

I guess I took the long way around to say, Make sure Safety is your first priority, but then let your child lead the pace on the matter after that.

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Usually it is seen that kids and even adults are afraid to do certain things due to some happenings in the past. However, it is quite important to help them overcome unnecessary fears.

In this case a good practice would be for the parents themselves take first step into the water and encourage the kid to step in. But to make it happen you need to first assure him that you are with him so nothing is going to happen to him.

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First, I completely agree with balanced mama (I usually do....) about making sure that SAFETY is your first priority. There are a lot of people who delude themselves into thinking that if their child can doggie-paddle, then he/she is a perfectly fine swimmer and can be left unsupervised in a pool. This is not the case. Kids who can doggie paddle are barely swimming. It is not going to harm your child to be overly-cautious with him/her until his/her swimming proficiency progresses adequately.

Maybe now isn't the time for swim lessons, but safe exposure to water is important. Giving your son the opportunity to explore water in a safe environment will make him more comfortable and, eventually, he'll learn how to swim in his own time.

My mom first put me in swim lessons when I was 4 or 5. And I was a screamer. I clung to the wall of that pool and refused to budge. I remember it vividly. For the duration of those swim classes, I probably ventured from the wall a total of 3 times and I'm certain I screamed more than I didn't scream. That summer, I started daycamp and we went swimming EVERYDAY. I didn't learn to swim that summer or the next summer, remaining safely in the shallow end of the pool where I could touch the bottom (I wasn't stupid. I knew I couldn't swim and I knew exactly how far I could go before it was too deep for me).

Finally, the summer I was 7, I decided that I wanted to go off the diving board. My daycamp, understandably, would not allow anyone who couldn't swim the width of the pool to jump off the diving board into 8 feet of water. I watched my friends and kids who were younger than me happily leaping off the end of the board and pop up smiling as they swam to the edge of the pool, and I felt stupid. So, in the span of about an hour, with the help of some daycamp counselors, my friends, and a swim instructor who had been teaching swimming longer than I'd been alive, I learned how to swim.

Over the years, I became a swim instructor myself, I was a lifeguard, and I'm proficient in every stroke and kick (maybe not the butterfly so much, but I could teach it if I had to...). I can tread water for several minutes and rescue unconscious victims from the bottom of a pool. I wouldn't win any awards for diving, but I've taught a fair number of children to dive, too.

Before learning can begin a child really needs to be comfortable in the water and feel motivated to learn how to swim. That motivation is different for every kid, but it needs to be an intrinsic motivation. Begin by getting him comfortable in the water without a life jacket with you there and worry about the lessons later.

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