Child's Fear of Swimming

Parent Q&A

  • Six year old's fear of the swimming pool

    (16 replies)

    I recognize that this isn't exactly the most pressing issue in the world right now, but my nearly 6 year old is driving me mad because he won't even try to swim and won't put his face in the water. We are members of our local pool and we take him regularly and he also has lessons there (run by high schoolers/volunteers), but he doesn't try. He just stays in the shallow end and does torpedoes with his face out of the water. Initially he was scared to even get in the pool so we have made some progress, but it's been a year. We haven't made that big a deal out of it but all his friends are now swimming and diving etc and he still won't try. He says he is scared and he doesn't want to put his face in the water. I have offered to hold his hand which he declined. I've bribed him too with candy, which has worked in the past. We haven't been that pushy but from time to time we try to encourage him to try harder. He's kind of like this with everything including reading and sports. He just likes doing his own thing and isn't very motivated to try new things, even if his friends are doing them. In a way I admire his ability to march to the beat of his own drum, but learning to swim is a safety issue plus he misses out on lots of fun that he could be having if he could swim.

    Tonight I put his goggles on in the bath and tried to get him to put his face in the water for one second. He refused. I tried bribing him that he could watch tv tomorrow and he still refused. I was really encouraging him and then I just got annoyed and told him if he wanted a birthday present and a party, he had to at least try. He still wouldn't do it and I felt mean! 

    When he was in bed I tried to talk to him about how I really wanted him to have a party and present, but he had to trust me that it would be worth putting the effort in. Eventually he said that if I let him try bubblegum he would put his face in the water in the bath. 

    Am am I being ridiculous? Should I just back off and let him do it in his own time? (Knowing him, this may be never!) Or should I keep encouraging him here and there? Any ideas would be much appreciated.

    With all due respect I think you are being way too pushy.  I've done similar things with to my kids are regretted it latter.  As parents this is something we all do.  Take a moment to re-read your post.  Does he really drive you mad?  Did you threaten him with no birthday party and then try to bribe him with candy and TV?  I hope you agree you are really applying a lot of pressure on 6-year-old to do something instinctively his brain is telling him not to do.  For whatever the reason, (water up his nose, leaking googles, a scary TV show movie, or story or brain development your son just isn't read today.   In my high school days, I use to teach swimming and the caution or fear your son is exhibiting is quite normal.  Give him the time to developed the confidence to do it on his own.  I remember the parents who pressured their kids took longer.  I have seen kids where for weeks they refuse so we just let them do what they like torpedo and then "snap" one day they just do it.  When he’s ready, he’ll have the confidence and just do it.

    Couple of things to build his confidence.  Do you know the "Motor Boat. Motor Boat go so slow" game to get your son to blow bubbles in the water through his mouth and nose.  (This works really well and kids have fun doing it.)  The goal is to get him use to putting part of his face in the water.  You could try a face mask, (not goggles) so his nose is covered.

    At this point I think you’ve done all you can.

    There’s a TED talk which might help you out with this.  It’s about how humans go about training dogs in the wrong way but he applies it to teaching kids.

    Hope this helps.

    I'm in the same boat as you so curious to see what other parents say!

    Who cares that he doesn't swim? Other than you, because you are wasting your money on pool membership. When he really feels the peer pressure, he'll maybe make an effort. I just don't see this as something worth fighting him on. (also agree about the bribery coming back to bite you later on when he expects it at every tough thing in his life)

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Toddler is terrified at swimming lessons

May 2013

Hello! My daughter is 28 months old and has been going to Aquatech in Alameda for swimming lessons for several months. Initially she really enjoyed the water although she wasn't excelling in her skills. While the rest of the little kids would kick their feet in the water, she really didn't get the concept. However, she usually had fun. She hates being dunked under water and cries everytime but she does a great job of making a puffy face and holding her breath when we go under. Recently she has decided she hates the swimming lessons and seems to be in terror for the entire half hour, clinging to me with arms and legs and won't let go and crying non-stop. She also is not having much fun in the bathtub anymore either. She used to love baths and would splash and kick and play and would stay in there far too long and cry when we would take her out. I'm at my wit's and and quite frankly don't want to take her to swimming lessons anymore as they've become as awful for me as they are for her. I know its important for her to learn to swim but this is clearly not working. Is this just a phase and I should keep going but focus more on having fun (this didn't work at all today) or should we take a break for awhile? Do we need to consider private swimming lessons (don't know if that's even possible or affordable)? Any advice would be appreciated. KC

My son was exactly like this, and his dad and I were both huge swimmers, so we pushed for a while there. But he was scared of swimming until he was about 4. He's 7 now and a great swimmer headed for teams. In retrospect, I wish we'd just dropped it until then, and made swimming all about fun water play with us, not lessons. I will also add - IMO Aquatech is AWFUL. We tried several programs and this one was by a mile the worst. I have many friends try and then drop Aquatech. The water is way too cold for young children. The indoor environment is overwhelming, crowded and way too noisy. We finally had luck when we switched to Tim Oliver Swimming. It's quiet and peaceful, sunny, outdoors, and a warm pool, groups of 2-4 kids, and mellow instructors. I advise, wait at least 1 year, then try again in a new program. sarah

I'm sorry to hear your child is having trouble with swim lessons. She is still very young, so I would not be too concerned that she is not ''getting'' it. It can take awhile for kids that young. One thing that concerned me about your letter is that you say she doesn't like ''being dunked.'' Is someone actually dunking her (forcing her under water)? That sounds awful. If I'm reading your letter correctly, that might be the problem right there. My daughters are both enthusiastic swimmers who started pretty early. Nevertheless, they both refused to go underwater until they were ready. My younger started doing it when she was between 3 and 4, and she did it on her own to emulate her sister. We had them in swim lessons every summer for a few years, and also took them to the pool all summer long. They both wore life jackets in the pool until they were ready (their choice with our encouragement), and both now swim very confidently in the deep end at 5 and 7. They are also both on swim team doing just great. Cut your kid some slack, she's little and swimming under water can be scary. If she is really scared of the bath see if she will accept a shower. I would switch to some other lessons for awhile, maybe take her for some relaxed trips to the pool where she can wear a life jacket or some floaties and just have fun. Swimming is an important skill, but your kiddo is still pretty young and you have plenty of time to teach her. Let her set the pace and don't worry, she'll get it in her own time. Heather

If she is crying, you have already pushed her way too far. I would suggest you stay away from all pools for at least a year. And bathe her as infrequently as possible. It is important to learn how to swim. But she is far too young to trust around water anyway, so let the whole swimming thing go for now. Anon

This is probably just a phase. Stop going to swim lessons for awhile. This happened to my nephew. He HATED swim lessons from about 2.5-4 years. Then he started swimming like a fish and this summer at age 8 he's going to 4 weeks of different water-based campings (junior lifeguards, surf camp). -- pick your battles

I would take a break. Not all kids are going to like the same things. My son didn't enjoy swim lessons as a toddler either. We pulled him out and didn't go back to a pool for a while. We tried different types of classes, and he found that he loved soccer, so we've been focusing on that. Last year (at age 4), I took him to the Hamilton public pool in Novato a few times- there is a great kiddie pool with a water slide. He was more interested in playing around the edge of the pool than most of the other kids, but we let him play at his pace and take his time to get comfortable. Now at 5 he is expressing interest in swim lessons on his own. There is definitely time in life for your daughter to learn to swim, no need to push it at such a young age. --

Don't force it. I hated swimming in groups when i was little...I hated showers, being splashed in my face, kicked by other kids, pushed under water, etc. I didn't learn to properly swim till I was in college. Can you find out if there was a particular incident that scared your little one? If you force it you'll wind up w/ a kid who forever hates to be in water. anon

Why is it so important for your 28-month old daughter to learn to swim. I think the main point of giving a baby swimming lessons would just be for enjoyment. If she hates it, don't make her do it. She does not need to learn to swim at this age. She can learn to swim in another 5 years like most kids, without swim lessons even! Never Had a Lesson, Swimmer At Age 7

Listen to your child and just take a break. Swimming is supposed to be fun not terrifying. My daughter went through the same thing, and I finally dropped my agenda and stopped insisting on swim lessons until she was ready to try them again. What a relief! I waited more than a year. It's not like my child is going to be another Esther Williams, but at least she's excited to be in the pool again and is finally learning how to swim. Been There Momma

Your little one is way too young for you to stress about organized, structured lessons. Right now, they are clearly backfiring and setting her water comfort back rather than moving it forward. Stop going. Take a break from the pool altogether for a little while, and then go back to a pool (maybe a different one) sometime just for fun. Be relaxed and playful. Let her keep her head out if she wants to. Let her do what she wants, even if it's splashing around on the steps the whole time. Don't even propose any of the skills at all. Just let her have fun. There is plenty of time for lessons later. My daughter started at 5 and now, at 8, is a better swimmer than me. My son was 3 when he was ready (he saw his big sister going so he wasn't scared). He loves it, but I waited to put him is lessons until he wanted them and was comfortable in the water. He is 4 1/2 now and can swim. Neither of my kids was EVER forced to dunk their heads. Good lessons will encourage taking the next step but will never force it and good teachers will recognize that it takes different kids different amounts of time to be ready. Your daughter is clearly letting you know these lessons are too much for her, and they are just making things worse. Just set the whole swimming goal aside and let her re-learn to like the water. Try lessons again when she is 3 1/2, 4, or even 5; it won't be too late -- trust me. Good luck! Anon

My son had similar issues at the same age; in fact, for about a year he refused to have water on his face for any reason. Washing his hair was traumatic, and included multiple warnings, large dry towels for his face, head held way back, etc. We just skipped swimming lessons for awhile (kids can't really swim independently at that age anyway). He liked going to the pool, but played only in the shallow end, never deeper than waist-deep in water, and no splashing. At about 5, we started swimming lessons with an individual instructor (I believe his name was Alon Altman) who was extremely good with hesitant kids (my son point-blank refused to go to group lessons). We also started using goggles, which helped a bunch. He got over the hesitance completely by about age 6, and now LOVES to swim. He can do several different strokes, willingly jumps off the side of the pool, dives to the bottom to pick up coins with his eyes open, LOVES snorkeling, etc. So my advice would be: it's a common phase. Just take a break from lessons, but gently encourage water play in any way that your daughter is comfortable with. Allow her to keep her face dry, and try goggles which may help (many kids hate water in their eyes). Give her control over when and how she goes in the water and it will pass quicker. Karen

I can understand your challenges!! My son was always clingy and didn't want to get in the pool unless I was in there---and that wasn't going to happen. Then there seemed to be a turning point. We went to a hotel that had a pool and he and his father had a great time just splashing around. Also, I started taking him to the JCC in Palo Alto with some of his friends and they had a great time. He re-learned that pools were fun and he started going underwater and pretending he was a dolphin. Now it's as if he doesn't want to get out. Maybe you could do something like that? Find a way to make it fun again? Best of luck to you!

At around 2 years is when children start having real fears. They are more aware of real life dangers etc. I'm thinking this is just a stage. At 2, she's not really going to learn how to swim with much skill so I'd suggest getting her to like the water again and stepping back from lessons. Try stopping lessons for 6 months, continue with the bath every night but get some fun new toys to out in. You can put shaving cream on the walls, use lots of bubbles, get the color changing tablets, some new toys.. Make it fun. You should also stay as neutral as possible. Try to not show any emotion when running the bath. Stay upbeat. This summer get some puddle jumpers (the best kids floaties) and try to go to a pool to just have fun. No pressure. If she wants to hang out on the steps. That's fine too.. Good luck. Anon

We have two kids -- a daughter who loves to swim and taught herself, at an early age -- and a son who has hated being in the water since he was a toddler. And guess what, I hate being in the water myself! Chlorinated swimming pool water gets into my sinuses and stings miserably. I once passed a required swimming test when I was 14, but I have avoided the water as an adult. The coastal communities are CHILLY in the morning when swim lessons are often offered. I certainly would not have wanted to go in myself. So I will go against established wisdom and say to give the kid a break. Maybe she will think swimming is a good thing to do when she is seven or eight. Anonymous

I can tell you my experience in getting my kid (now a 23 year old) to learn to swim, but even more I can tell you his experience as a swimming teacher for many years. Don't push it. Most kids aren't ready to learn until their 5 or 6 or 7. Until then, they just need to associate being in the water with fun. All the swim teachers say that when a kid is ready, get them a few private lessons and they will learn very quickly, like maybe even in one lesson. It would be great if you had a future Olympic gold medalist in swimming on your hands, but better that the kid should find being in the water fun and learn to swim on her own schedule. Dianna

My older son hated the pool until 5 ish years old. He's 10 now and loves swimming. My younger son currently hates the pool. Oy! Here we go again. anon

Your little one is still little- only 28 months- why force lessons on her she does not like? Let go of any guilt related to her needing to learn how to swim now, and let her be a carefree toddler. It sounds from what you write that these lessons are traumatizing her, and that if you continue, it will get worse. She will find her connection to it later, leave it for now. Cuddle her and tell her she doesn't have to take the lessons. There is so much pressure for parents to rush to get a head start on everything. I would just leave it and trust that she will come around in her own time, on her schedule, not yours. You can at least afford to stop for the time being. let go of the lessons

4-year-old loves the pool but is terrified at class

April 2011
Our daughter started swimming classes rather successfully for the first 3 lessons. We did pretty much everything to make it pleasant for her: going with school friends, warm water, amazing teachers (even talking in her maternal tongue), staying with her (out of the water)...she refuses to go back. I am confident it has nothing to do with the teachers. She says she is cold (we've mentioned wet suit) but yesterday she told me that she is too tired after school. I have reluctantly withdrawn her, not blaming her, just telling her we can try again when she is ready. My thing is, there is no refunding, she is already 4 and I'm getting nervous about her not knowing how to swim ( I have chronic pain and cannot teach her...), and knowing her, she will very probably not want to go back to the lessons. The mystery is that she adores the pool, water, the ocean...only with her parents...I'm not worried, just preoccupied. Any stories, positive feedback welcomed. Thanks! swim mom

I'm sorry about the lost tuition. That's a bummer. But here's the good news: at 4, she might be just a little too young and will be ready in a year. My daughter wasn't quite ready for it at 4. I had a strong feeling the pressure of even gentle lessons would be too much and that her nervousness would get in the way. She also said she didn't want lessons. So we waited until the summer she was 5. It has worked out beautifully. By then, she really understood, really felt, the difference between playing in the water and *swimming* and wanted to be able to *swim*. She was also more emotionally mature and ready to handle a lesson. We continued lessons at the Y through this past kindergarten year. She is now almost 6 and swims quite well, in my opinion. She can cross a pool with a pretty decent freestyle (with side-breathing) or backstroke, and is beginning to learn breaststroke and can tread water. It's like reading; when they are truly ready and motivated, they progress a lot more quickly. She is at exactly the same level as a friend who started lessons at 3.5. So just be patient -- you'll make a fish out of her yet! (also, give her goggles; they make a giant difference) Anon

I can so relate. My 3.5 yr daughter wanted to join swim classes because my 6 yo takes them. However, the second the first lesson started she was terrified and totally freaked out. I stayed with her and that made her sit on the edge of the water but no more. The next three lessons were all outside the water with ethe instructor periodically checking on her to see if she was ready and she wasn't. It was hilarious and stressful at the same time. By the fifth lesson she was in the water on the first step with most of her body out. By the eighth she was on the bottom rung and smiling and talking to the instructor but NOT trying to stand in the pool of following other instructions like trying to float or splash. I've reenrolled her and this time she was on the bottom stair on her first lesson. The best thing is that this time in the middle of the lesson she decided to let the instructor take her in the water such that she was submerged. She was clutching the instructor in terror but decided to try it again later in the lesson. I am hoping that on the next lesson she may be ready to be take instructions with the other kids. Else I will reenroll. Best of luck and hang in there. Happy mom of a very tentative swimmer

5-year-old refuses to get her face wet at the pool

Feb 2004

Our daughter has been taking swimming lessons pretty consistently for about a year now and is making no progress. She started at the Y as a pike and moved right up to eels the next session, but there she stays. In fact, the teachers think she should go back to pikes now bc she won't even do the minimum anymore that the class expects, i.e. putting her face in the water, floating with help... She doesn't put up a big fight about it and she's always quite happy to go to swim class, she just refuses to take any risks, esp. with getting her face and eyes wet. We tried goggles but she didn't like those. We tried lessons at the King pool during the summer, but she was just as reluctant there.

This doesn't seem like something to just give up on -- if it were gymnastics or soccer or something like that, we'd say fine, she can live without it, why push? But this is water safety, and it seems like a skill she needs to have.

We're about to try a private lesson to see if a little less noise and commotion might help, but she won't even let water on her face in the tub, so I'm doubtful that it will make a difference. Please share your thoughts and experience on this one. elisabeth

Our daughter was exactly like this! We tried all different sorts of swimming lessons, even driving all the way over to that school up in El Sobrante that's supposed to be so good. She enjoyed lessons but just refused to progress.

Then one day just before her 7th birthday we were at a hotel with a pool. She got in with her dad and decided to put her face in the water and try to swim. He helped her a little and she actually made a few strokes. She was really excited and we gave her a lot of encouragement. When we got home we signed her up for swimming lessons at the local pool. The training wasn't the greatest but she made fabulous progress, and a year later she was swimming at an advanced level.

I guess it's just another of those things where the child has to be ready and *they* have to decide to do it. When your daughter is ready she'll learn to swim. In the meantime, don't sweat it.

The same thing happened with my son. He would take a couple of sessions of swim classes at the Y each year but never even progressed beyond pikes because he would not put his face in the water. He seemed to like the classes, though. Then last spring, when he was six, he started in the lowest level of classes for older kids, and suddenly overcame his fear and started to learn to swim. For him, goggles were the key, but I don't think they would necessarily have worked when he was five. I think he just was ready. Jennifer N

I was about the same age when my parents put me in swim classes, which I, too, loved, but in which I was afraid in the same way. I think the greatest risk is that your daughter will detect your frustration and irritation; after all these years, I still recall my father's reactions to my fear. You might simply have to wait until she's old enough to recognize her fear for what it is, and to intellectually see her way through it. By the time I was about 14, I took classes -- for the 4th time in my life. At that age, I was able to work beyond my fear, and quickly became a strong swimmer, and even became one of the youngest kids in junior lifesaving. late swimmer

Do you know if your daughter had a bad experience with one of her swim teachers? I have vivid memories of being a rather timid seven- year-old, taking swim lessons, and having the teacher expect us all to jump feet first into the deep end. When I wouldn't, he made fun of me in front of the other students. Needless to say, I wanted nothing to do with the water for quite a long time. It took a couple of hours, one on one, with a very gentle, understanding, non-pressuring swim coach before I would even consider putting my face in the water again. Karen

No real advice here, except to be patient and persistent. My then-5 year old also was timid about putting his face in the water, and was reluctant to even venture forth from the wall during Y lessons for many sessions. His breakthrough occurred last summer when he suddenly realized how much fun it was to be underwater, and now at age 6 he is completely comfortable in the water. Daily lessons at the King pool and swimming at Camp Tuolomne seemed to do the trick. Being able to touch bottom was a big help. Goggles helped a lot, so keep that open as an option, even though she is not interested now. It might help if you can arrange time in a pool outside of structured lessons. Vacations at a place with a swimming hole or a motel pool? Bring some diving sticks or rings, and have her retrieve them, starting with shallow areas like the pool steps. swimmer's dad

21-month-old loves baths, hates the pool


Wondering if anyone has experience helping their toddler overcome a fear of swimming--or rather, fear of being in a swimming pool. My 21-month-old loves taking a bath, but doesn't like the splashing that comes from being in a pool with even one other child. Last summer was her first experience being in a pool, and from the very beginning she made it clear she didn't like it. We took her first to Strawberry Canyon, and it was way too active for her. So then we tried the small backyard pool, thinking a more controlled environment would be easier to handle, but she didn't want to get in. Now the summer is rolling around and we've gotten the first sign that not much has changed over the interim period. On one of the hot days last week her childcare provider brought out a bunch of pools for the kids to cool off in, but our daughter Toni wouldn't have it. The teachers even made the water warmer, more like a bath, but Toni appeared to be afraid of being splashed. We don't want to push anything, she'll probably outgrow this if we leave her alone, but I'm wondering if there's anything we can do to show her how much fun she can have, and to encourage a love of the water.

Fear of swimming. A fear of splashing sounds like something that your daughter is just going to have to grow out of. My son developed a mild fear of large bodies of water used for swimming (no problem with a bath) when he was almost 2. On advice of a friend I enrolled him in the downtown Berkeley YMCA's water acclimation class for kids 6 mos-3 years old. Obviously this involves a parent being with the kid at all times. The first time we went he was quite scared and I held him barely touching the water most of the time, but just at the end he discovered how much fun it was to jump in and have me catch him. After that he had no problems being in the swimming pool and we even signed up for a second session, just to have fun. Good luck! Dianna

I am afraid I don't have any quick fixes. Our own experience was that our son, now five, was also afraid of water in his face. As a baby, he would become very upset when one of us would take him into the shower, presumably because he didn't like the water splashing on his face. He did, however, enjoy piddling around in the baby pool and in the tub. But recreational swimming in a real pool was not of interest to him at all. He would cry and act terrified. Finally, last summer he seemed to overcome everything. I credit his swimming teacher. She was an older, grandma-type, who was very firm but not at all scary. She was quite experienced and scared students were old hat for her. I made sure my son knew that I trusted her and that the lessons were a fun privilege. Before one week of lessons was over, he had mastered a few skills and was much more relaxed. I think it had something to do with the fact that unlike I, the instructor did not become alarmed when he expressed fear. I guess children know when we are worried and/or frustrated even when we try to fake it. Good luck.

My parents, brothers and sister were all good swimmers and my three children are all good swimmers, however I have been absolutely petrified of water my entire life and see absolutely nothing appealing about swimming. Every summer my parents sent me to swimming lessons as they thought I would learn to love it like they did. That was not the case, in fact I would try to get out of these lessons which I never succeeded at doing. I am now in my 50's and things have not changed, so there are some of us that unfortunately never get over the fear.