By Heidi Stevens
June 14, 2011
Your 4-year-old is terrified of water. How can you coax him into the pool?
My son is autistic. I went to the pool store and purchased some sinkable rings, about 3 inches in diameter. My son loves video games, so for motivation, I taped a dollar to the sinkable ring, and threw it in where he could walk up to it. Once he retrieved the ring I threw another one out with two dollars taped to it, but just a little farther. By the end of the day he had enough money for a Wii game, and water was never an issue from that point on.
— Paul Verheyen
Will he take a bath? If so, challenge him to lie back or put his face in the water. He could put on water wings in the tub and you could explain that they would help him swim in a pool. If he is afraid of the tub, let him bathe a doll or wash a truck in the water. Let him help to wash the car. Introduce him to fun and engaging activities that involve water.
— Dawn Lantero
Let's start with what you shouldn't do.
"Don't force the child to go into the pool," says pediatrician Kate Cronan, medical editor for KidsHealth.org. "Don't carry him into the water if he is terrified. This is not likely to work and could cause the child to become more scared."
"Don't shame the child for feeling scared. Acknowledge that the child is scared and that everybody is scared sometimes. Don't compare the child who is fearful with other children: 'Jack goes into the water, why won't you?'"
Now, onto some good ideas.
Sign up for lessons. "Child swimming classes may be helpful — at least a trial of lessons. However, be flexible and consider taking a break after a few if you see continued anxiety with no improvement. Keep going to a few lessons and let your child observe the other children having fun. Curiosity may take over and your being there may help boost his confidence."
Use floaties. "Water wings and other similar devices can make the child feel the joy of being in the water and floating. This may be reinforcing and lessen the fear. These devices, however, cannot be relied upon for the long term."
Exploit bath time. "Suggest swimming activities such as kicking, light paddling. Play games, sing beach songs, bring a favorite plastic toy, read waterproof books, talk about the day's fun activities. The goal is to associate being in the water with fun."
Set gradual goals. "Start with a wading pool and first have the child put his feet into the shallow water, then sit on the edge of the pool with legs in the pool, then begin to gently wade in the pool. The steps can be done while a parent is holding the child in his/her lap or sitting next to the child. … A parent can make a game out of having the child's legs in the pool: kicking for a specified number of times … singing while kicking."
Relax. "Parents should remain calm and express confidence in their child: 'I know this is hard, but I know you can do it.' If the parent becomes anxious and shows it, the child will become anxious. The child takes cues from his or her parents about what is safe and unsafe." Plus, the fears will most likely lessen over time. "Most kids will outgrow the fear of water by age 4 to 5 years," says Cronan. "If the fear persists and your child continues to be very anxious beyond this age, talk to your child's doctor about next steps."
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