Fear of water, or aquaphobia, is the most common phobia we see a psychologist about, although zoophobia is the most common. The inability to do activities in the aquatic environment, or worse, not being able to help our child in case they fall in the water and find themselves in danger, pushes us to override our self-preservation instinct and start introductory swimming lessons. These should be preceded by a few sessions with a psychologist in more serious cases. It’s never too early to do this; as time passes, fears get worse and harder to manage.
Do children have aquaphobia?
Fortunately, the answer is no. In young children, fears of water are the result of secondary mental processes. It might start around 8-9 months of age, as a result of the awareness of separation from parents, so it’s important from that age onwards to bathe together with him, giving him safety and comfort. Then around the age of 2 years, he starts to be more aware of himself and his environment. This is when he sees certain situations that he doesn’t understand and misinterprets. For example, he sees water dripping out of the bathtub and thinks he might be pulled in there too. Even if he is small, don’t hesitate to give him complex information. At 3 years old, when his imagination becomes more active, he may imagine that there is a monster under the water that will hurt him. At this age, imagination is intertwined with and influences reality.
All the above situations are not managed correctly and in time, making the child avoid contact with water, leading to aquaphobia.
What should I do if my child is afraid of water?
The most crucial step is not to underestimate their fear. Example: “I don’t understand why you are so scared, after all, it’s nothing difficult”. Also to be avoided are dramatizations such as: “In summer we’ll go to the sea, everyone will play in the water, only you will stay on the shore”. This kind of attitude is common among parents. It only increases the child’s repulsion towards the water.
Tracey Warren, national director, and safety expert for Child Safe Canada say “don’t force the child who really has a fear…take it back a step”.
Point out all the benefits in a positive and empathetic tone (e.g., “I know it’s hard for you, but we both know it’s worth the effort now so that when we go to the pool, we can all play in the water”). That way they’ll perceive water as a friendly environment, not a necessary evil.
If your child has a fear of water but decides to take them to swimming lessons, look for a pool dedicated to toddlers. At these, the instructors have, in addition to training in swimming, studies in child psychology. Your child will be safe and have noticeable results in a short time. Avoid very crowded pools where children of different levels or even adults enter. The noise, splashing, and bustle of others will amplify his anxiety.
If you decide to take matters into your own hands and deal with the situation yourself, plan your steps carefully. Timing is very important. Most of the time, we tend to leave it until the evening, when we’ve finished the rest of our chores, and then a massage and a well-deserved nap will follow. But by that time, the child is already tired and all they want is to eat and rest. For children with a fear of water, the best time for a bath is when they feel most like playing. This will make them more receptive, and more eager to play games and learn new things. Equally important is to have had lunch an hour beforehand, preferably together. This will give you both extra energy and patience and you can use mealtimes to plan playtime during bath time.
Read the stories with and about water. You can start with “I’m not afraid of water”, the first book on water education written in Romanian. It’s a beautiful story for children and a valuable resource for parents, with doctors, psychologists, physical education teachers, and swimming coaches working together to write it.
Other tips that might help:
- Match the water early, so you avoid contact with water that is too cold or too hot;
- Put a non-slip mat on the bottom of the tub to avoid imbalances;
- A mirror positioned next to the bathtub will make bathing more fun. Your child will have more fun seeing themselves with, for example, their hair disheveled and full of lather;
- Put floating and sinking toys in the water;
- Play by blowing into the water held in your fist, then blowing up a toy on the surface of the water;
- Make “water zoos” and recover “sunken treasures”;
- Remind them of the heroes in the books they read and what they did in difficult times. You can improvise a role-play;
- If you notice that he’s not into it, avoid bathing him daily. You can do it every 2 or 3 days. This will make it easier for him to accept;
- If she doesn’t like baths, you can try showers. The reverse is also true.
- Be an example. Participate with him, have fun, and play like a child. Whatever you suggest he does, do it first. Stay in touch with him at all times. All this will give him confidence and help him relax.
- Avoid rewards or threats that he won’t get anything else. Help him understand that playing in the water is the best reward for his effort.
- When he already enjoys the water to a small extent, get excited and participate with him in every proposal he has, whether it’s a game, a different way of doing an exercise, or a new exercise.
- Don’t rush him, don’t force him, don’t force him. Push him from behind, but give him time, and don’t make him feel bad when he doesn’t get something right. Encourage him to try again and again until he succeeds.
Lower the level as much as it takes to make it accessible to him to succeed. Stay at that level until you feel he’s doing what he’s doing with gusto and is ready to move forward.
It will take patience and perseverance, but I trust you will succeed. In the end, your child will be happy and will thank you in his own way! Good luck!