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September 1, 2013

Tread lightly with child who is afraid of the water

Dear Doctor,

The summer was very hard for our 7-year-old daughter. She is frightened of the water, and we put in a small above-ground pool. We wanted her to enjoy it, but she gets very upset.

Her father has teased her and threatened to just toss her in. He means it in fun, but she gets even more scared. How do you help a child get over this fear?

Ma

Dear Ma,

You do not do it by teasing her and threatening to “toss her in.”

If she were my youngster, I would look for private lessons from a swimming instructor who is used to children’s fears and knows how to teach basic water skills.

I would not want the likes of Atilla the Hun. There are swimming instructors out there who might not be patient and sympathetic.

You might work with her first with some simple-but-effective techniques.

Simply get into the pool yourself. Gently, and I emphasize gently, ease your daughter into the water with you. Let her hold onto you for dear life. She will do exactly that.

While you speak to her with encouraging words, allow yourself to splash and move around a bit in the water. Smile. Do not denigrate or make comments like “scared” or “frightened.” Use words like “fun” and “feels good.”

Gradually you will help her move her legs and splash the water with her arms. Over time, perhaps many sessions, she will be able to lean back in the water with you holding her safely up. You can set up whatever steps or milestones you might like.

Encourage her to relax and to breathe slowly and deeply. This is a technique called “reciprocal inhibition,” modified a bit for a 7-year-old.

Have Dad do something constructive away from the pool!

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, you can email Dr. Larry Larsen at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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