A fear of water is relatively common among toddlers and preschool-age children, and may persist throughout childhood if not addressed.
Why kids are afraid of the water
A fear of the water is often triggered by a scary incident, such as another child holding their head underwater, either on purpose or by accident as the result of other kids playing around them. A fear of the water can also be mistaken for (or intertwined with) a fear of crowds. Pools and beaches tend to be bustling, crowded places, and it may be the people more than the water that’s scaring them. Or it could be that a child who is just a little bit anxious about the water becomes a lot more anxious when all those other bigger, unpredictable kids are around.
If a child seems to be afraid of water in everyday life and flees whenever a hose or faucet is turned on, it’s typically more about them not liking to get wet than an actual fear. Another possibility is that they’ve had a bad experience with water getting up their nose or feel like they can’t breathe with water on their face, and so they don’t like the prospect of anyone squirting them.
Dealing with a child’s fear of water
- To begin with, children should have a healthy fear of large bodies of water. Water is one of the most dangerous things in a child’s environment. So you don’t want to completely put them at ease, just do enough that they can function normally.
- Don’t pressure or rush a child. Let her hang back and observe, watching the other kids have fun in the water. This time allows your child to observe the different skill levels and see what activities they might be comfortable with. Give them some time to build up their bravery. Often times, parents make matters worse by pressuring them to jump in right away, which raises their anxiety level before they’ve even started
- Help them gain control over what they do. Pick a quiet spot away from others, and whenever possible, talk to other children and lay out ground rules about how they should play (no pushing Jessica, no trying to dip her, etc.). This may give kids the reassurance they need to step out of their comfort zone.
- Get your child nose plugs. Water fears often arise because children hate the sensation of water going up their nose. Goggles that help them see underwater may also relieve anxiety.
How to help children overcome their fear of water
- Watch your words. Anxiety about the water can sometimes be stoked by the games others play or the things said in the water. When a child overhears other kids playing a game of shark, he or she might grow concerned that there really are monsters lurking under the water. Remind them that there’s nothing dangerous under there.
- When not in the water, play games holding your breath. Time how long they can go without breathing. This may help them build up their confidence that they’ll be okay in the water.
- To overcome these fears, you need to push them beyond their comfort level in small steps. With you or another adult accompanying them, get them in the water. Have them practice putting their face in the water, then ducking their whole head under, and so on. Teach them how to hold their nose. There is no mystery to it; it’s all about increasing their exposure with an adult’s help.
- Try to get them into swim lessons to improve their swim skills.
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