I’ll never forget the shame I felt when, as a child, I was too afraid to jump off the diving board at a birthday party and my dad refused to leave until I would at least try. He was a search and rescue diver in the Navy, so at one point in his life, his swimming skills easily rivaled those of Michael Phelps.
His military past made my fear of the water especially difficult for both of us. I mean, when your dad literally saved lives by diving into the depths of a stormy ocean, it sort of makes the irrational fear of getting water in your eyes kind of laughable — and embarrassing. Thankfully, though, with a little practice, bribery and a few scare tactics, he was able to teach me how to swim at a very young age.
More: Swim safety 101
Not too long ago, I was dealing with the same shrill, water-induced squeal I had uttered as a child — this time from my own offspring. I was giving him a bath just like I normally would, something he usually loved, but when I went to rinse the shampoo out of his hair, he had a meltdown of epic proportions.
This went on for weeks. What was once a fun and bubbly routine became something that would send my son into a fight-or-flight response (and me to the wine rack). We live in the South, and it gets hot down here in the summer — I mean, really, really hot. So since summer was right around the corner, I knew I had to do something about my son’s sudden aversion to water.
I did what any mother would do when faced with this type of situation — I called my dad. I thought that if he could get me to love the water, then surely he could get my son to feel the same way. We proceeded to integrate my dad’s five-step plan into my already failing methods, and the results were almost immediate.
Step 1: Be patient
Being patient with toddlers is a difficult but necessary evil. For my son, we had to go back to the very basics — first dipping his toes into the tub water, then trickling some over his body to rinse off the soap, and eventually, once he had very hesitantly warmed up to all of that, we would pour small amounts over his head (without getting it in his eyes) to rinse out the shampoo. Slowly but surely (and with a lot of patience), he came around.
Step 2: Start small, and make it fun
We started in the bathtub. We would put him in the tub for bath time but also for playtime so he would associate water with fun. We allowed him to stay in the tub for however long he wanted, and we bought special bath time toys he could play with. Once he started playing with the toys and drawing on the tub with the bath markers, he almost completely forgot he was in the water. A few days before, he wouldn’t even sit down in the water, but before long, he was so comfortable that he was lying on his belly, rolling around and splashing in it.
Step 3: Keep it familiar
Once we graduated from the tub, we headed to the yard with his water toys in tow. There, we started with the hose — he made a little car wash for his Hot Wheels, and he watered all our plants. Once he was comfortable with the water flying all over the place, including in his eyes, we got out the sprinkler. He was hesitant at first, but once he got used to the idea, he was running through the sprinkler without any panic whatsoever.
Step 4: Monkey see, monkey do
We then visited a friend’s neighborhood kiddie pool. We got my son arm floaties and let him pick out all of his own swim gear so he would be excited to show it off. Initially I sat in the water with him so he wouldn’t panic. Once he got used to the feeling of having water up to his belly and shoulders, he felt confident enough to run around in the kiddie pool on his own. I did everything he did, showing him that it was OK to jump and splash and run around in the pool, and he mimicked me like a shadow. Before long, he had forgotten that I was even there.
Step 5: Cheering section
The secret weapon of all parents is positive reinforcement. Anytime my son would show any remote interest in water, I would cheer him on. When he conquered the bathtub, I sang his brave praises. When he ran through the sprinkler, I joined in on the fun. And when he decided to go solo in the kiddie pool, we went out for ice cream afterward because he was such a big boy.
Helping a child overcome any fear can be a frustrating process, sure, but with a little patience and creativity, it is possible. My son is now comfortable enough in the water to have a good time, and seeing the smile on his face as he splashes around is totally worth every frustrating moment when I wanted to pull my hair out.
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