Mama Drama: Toddler Swimming Anxiety
Dear Mama Drama:
My twenty-month-old son has been taking swimming lessons for about a month. He started out well, but now throws a fit when I tell him it’s time to go swimming and is often hysterical by the time we get to the pool. Sometimes I can coax him into the water and other times he’s completely uncooperative. He’s always loved the water so I’m not sure what is getting in the way of him enjoying swim lessons.
How can we help him get through this and get back to loving the water?
~Drowning in Drama
Starting children in swim lessons early is a great way to help them feel comfortable in the water and prevent swimming accidents. It can also be normal for children to feel some mild anxiety about swimming.
At his young age your son is not easily able to communicate what the specific problem is so a temper tantrums works as well as it can to let you know he does not like what is happening. Observing his behavior can give you some clues about what is bothering him. Here are some things to consider:
The time of day for his lessons could be the problem. He might be tired, hungry, or needing self-directed play. Maybe you have just gotten home for the day and he feels whisked off to something else when he really just wants to be home. Maybe the lessons are on a weekend morning when he’s used to hanging out with mom and dad and doesn’t want to go somewhere else.
Remember to use transition warnings so he has plenty of time to adjust. Let him know he can play for five minutes and then it will be time to change into swim clothes. Even though he doesn’t understand “five minutes” yet, the transition warning helps him to begin thinking about stopping what he is doing. Give him another warning at one minute and then go in to help him clean up when it is time to stop.
Sensory issues can often be part of the picture when it comes to swim lessons. Pools are loud and echo a lot. The water can be cold, especially to little sensitive bodies that still don’t regulate temperature really well. The depth of the water can also be scary. Little ones cannot touch the bottom and that can create a lot of anxiety.
Stranger anxiety and trust may also be part of the puzzle. If he is in a lesson where an instructor is teaching directly rather than you, he may be worried about his safety. It’s common for kids to worry about sinking in the water and whether the person teaching them will keep them safe. Encourage the instructor to develop a supportive relationship with your son.
One way to work with many of these issues at once is to create a social story. A social story briefly explains events in age appropriate language with positive presuppositions. An example is: “I am safe at swim lessons! On Tuesday after snack I put on my swimming clothes and go to the pool with mom. We wait together for the other class to finish. Then I get in the water with Ms. Jessica. Ms. Jessica keeps me safe. At swim lessons we kick our legs, put our faces in the water, and splash with our arms. When we are all done, Mom wraps me in a towel to get warm and dry. I am safe at swim lessons.
Taking pictures of the different parts of the story will help it to be more concrete for his developmental level. Read the story together throughout the week and especially the night before and day of the lessons. Add in any additional pieces related to noise or water temperature, etc., that you may have noticed.
It is also okay to take a break from lessons is things are really too difficult right now. Listen to your son’s behavior – his best way of communicating right now – and assess whether swim lessons are a necessity right now or not. He may not be ready for them, may not feel comfortable at the particular pool or with the specific teacher.
Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to Lisa@milehighmamas.com, and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.