How to Get Your Child Over Their Fear of Water

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Your three-year-old loves bath time, and seemed excited about your family’s upcoming trip to the beach. But when you got to the beach, they clammed up, and wouldn’t even dip their toes in the water. Or maybe your baby loved it when you gently held them in the pool, but now that they are a toddler, the mere mention of a pool excursion causes them to break out into a chorus of emphatic “No’s!”

If these sorts of scenarios sound familiar to you, you are not alone. It is very common for young children to develop a fear of water — and for parents to feel frustrated and unsure how to get their kids to overcome these fears.

Don’t fret: there are several tactics you can try to help your child overcome this fear. Either way, it is unusual for a child to hold onto these fears beyond the early years of childhood.

What Causes Childhood Fear of Water

You can blame developmental immaturity on most instances of fear of water in children. Babies don’t always have the awareness of water as something to fear and will usually happily splash away in the bath, lake, ocean, or pool. But as children get older, it’s common for them to begin to fear water.

The toddler and preschool years are prime years for developing a fear of water. Here’s why:

  • Your child may suddenly become aware of the vastness and mysteriousness of large pools of water.
  • They may realize that water is something that could potentially be dangerous.
  • However, they haven’t yet developed any way to rationalize these fears or put them into perspective.
  • Your toddler doesn’t yet have the life experience to know that even though big bodies of water may look foreboding and scary, they actually aren’t. 

Some children are able to brush these fears off more easily than others. If your child had a difficult experience with water or a particularly fraught association with it, these fears may be more intense.

  • If your child had a scary experience in water (even in the bathtub) such as slipping, getting excessively splashed, or experiencing unwanted water immersion, this can make these fears even more prevalent and hard to shake.
  • Some children may not have had a particularly scary experience in the water, but an uncomfortable one, like water in their nose or eyes, and the concern of this happening again makes them feel reluctant to get into the water.
  • A child who has sensory processing issues or who is prone to sensory overload may have difficulty with water, sand, or the loud noises that accompany many water-going excursions.

Strategies for Easing Your Child’s Fears

It’s natural to feel at a loss when your child has an irrational fear of water or fears that seem impossible to shake.

It’s best to take a measured, empathetic, calm approach when dealing with your child’s fears. After all, if you exhibit stress, they will pick up on this, and this will only magnify their own fears.

Here are some strategies to try:

Gradual Immersion

Letting your child get used to the water gradually can be really helpful. Maybe on the first day they only dip their toes in, the next day they go in up to their knees, then up to their waist, etc. Some children just really need extra time to feel comfortable. Don’t push it.

Fun Equipment

Colorful goggles, water wings with their favorite character on them, a sturdy life-jacket. Some kids will feel more comfortable going in with a little equipment. These items can make them feel safe and more secure. It’s important to emphasize that as fun as some of these items are, they are not toys. And as The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends, parents should never allow floatation aids devices to give them a false sense of security or use them as substitutes for hands-on supervision.

One-On-One Swim Lessons

Some children will be more likely to listen to an adult other than their parent when it comes to getting in the water. A kind, patient swim instructor may just do the trick — plus, they have tons of experience with this issue, and their own tricks-of-the-trade when it comes to getting young children more comfortable in the water.

Get in With Them

Some kids are only comfortable if you get in the water with them. You can take several days where you either carry them, or hold their hand, and then gently ease yourself away. But even when you back away, never go too far. The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends that parents stay within arm’s length of any inexperienced swimmers at all times.

Talk It Out

It can be helpful to understand the reason behind your child’s fear. Sometimes that can be difficult to ascertain, especially if it’s a more general fear of water. But many kids will be able to tell you about a scary movie they saw involving water, or a specific fear such as a monster living in the bottom of a lake or pool. If you know what they are grappling with it, it may be easier to help them overcome their fear and feel more at ease in the water.

Seek Counseling

If your child seems particularly frightened or anxious and you are not able to get to the bottom of it, meeting for a session or two with a child psychologist can work wonders.

When Should You Teach Your Child To Swim?

Of course, you want to be patient as your child works through their fear of water. But it’s important not to let your child’s fear stop them from learning how to swim.

According to the CDC, after birth defects, drowning is the leading cause of death among children aged 1-4. And one of the best defenses against it is teaching a child how to swim.

In fact, although the Academy of American Pediatrics had previously recommended children wait until age four to begin swim lessons, in March of 2019, they changed their guidelines to add that children should begin swim lessons as early as one year old, citing research suggesting that doing so could decrease drowning rates among young children.

The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends you discuss your child’s developmental readiness for swim lessons with your pediatrician, and look for a swim instruction program with experienced teachers. Your pediatrician is also a great resource to discuss any fears that your child is having about the water; they may have their own tailor-made plan to help your child overcome these fears.

A Word from Verywell

It can be so stressful for parents to see their child struggle with fear and anxiety. It’s a natural impulse to want try to rationalize with your child or urge them in no uncertain terms to just “get over” what is bothering them. But with something like a fear of water, you definitely want to tread lightly (pun intended!) and help them overcome their fear with as much patience as you can muster.

Don’t go it alone, though. If simple strategies such as the ones above don’t seem to be working, reach out to your doctor, a psychologist, or a certified swim instructor for advice. It’s important not to just let your child’s fear of the water get the better of them, because teaching your child to swim is important and something you should do early as possible.

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