My son is panicking about learning to swim. Help?
July 11, 2014 12:44 PM   Subscribe

My kids are going to a day camp for the first time this summer. They're scheduled to swim twice a day, but my son has been refusing to go into the pool and panicking when the counselors try to encourage him into the water. How can we convince him the pool is fun, safe and comfortable?


My six year old son is in his second week at day camp. The first couple of days at the pool went well. He dipped his feet and legs in the water, wore floaties and clung to the wall and ladder and splashed around. No big deal.

Last Thursday he apparently began refusing to go into the pool. Then, that evening after coming home from camp, he completely freaked out and started crying when it was time to take his shower. It was bad: he was clinging to sink, trying to prevent us from picking him up and putting him in the tub. and kept yelling he didn't want to get his face wet. We assumed he was tired and let it slide.

Well, now it's been a week. He freaks out, cries and screams "NO! NO!" each time he needs to take a shower. (We have been very gently insistent, coaxing him into the tub and calming him down so he can bathe properly.) At camp, each time the counselors try to coax him into the pool, he refuses. We can't figure out why. All he'll tell us and them is that he doesn't want to get his face wet. He's always been sensitive to that -- likes to keep a washcloth near him when he showers, in case water or shampoo drips into his eyes. Doesn't like having strong wind blow in his face. We thought that was a minor idiosyncrasy, and not enough of a problem to be worth addressing.

So, according to both him and the camp, nothing seems to have triggered this behaviour. He's spending an hour or two each day sitting on the sidelines, watching all his friends play in the pool, and we'd like to work with him to increase his comfort level and join them. I would happily take him to a local pool this weekend or in the evenings after work next week, to help get him used to it. But how, if he won't even go in the water?

I suppose it's worth mentioning that we'd like to resolve this situation gently and in as untraumatic a way as possible. One of my friends suggested just tossing him into the shallow end so he'd realize the water couldn't harm him. That won't be happening, so please don't suggest it. Other than that, any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks very much in advance.
posted by zarq to Human Relations (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The thing with his eyes feels like a clue to me, like that's what's got him freaked out. How about letting him pick out a cool pair of goggles?
posted by jbickers at 12:47 PM on July 11, 2014 [14 favorites]

I don't have kids so dont have a solid suggestion on how to help him overcome this fear, but you kept using the word "shower" above. Does he fight you if you run the bath and let him get into bath water instead? That situation is less likely for water to get on his face (he is more control of how close his face gets to the water) and might at least help you get through bath time. If he is in the tub maybe he will start talking about his fear and maybe you can encourage him that the pool is similar to the tub. It might be a small step in the right direction.
posted by MultiFaceted at 12:50 PM on July 11, 2014

Definitely wonder about goggles -- as an adult who is a good swimmer and was on swim team for 10 years as a child, I still won't consider going near a chlorinated pool without goggles on, because the pain is intense for me. My understanding from people who open their eyes in pool water is that this is not the same for everyone and some people consider it no big deal, but yeah even getting water in my eyes in the shower is really uncomfortable, still.
posted by brainmouse at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with jbickers on the goggle thing. Let him pick out some cool goggles, and then just let him wear them everywhere (like in the shower) so he can start feeling safe again before attempting the pool.

You could also have a family squirt gun or water balloon fight to show that water not only doesn't hurt but can be fun, too.
posted by phunniemee at 12:53 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not just goggles, how about a mask like for snorkeling?
posted by elizardbits at 12:54 PM on July 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Lots of exposure, but at his speed. Have him try out various types of goggles. Cheap ones over the eyes, big diver ones, soft band type, and suits with built in foam floating devices. Blow up wings are as "dangerous" in the false sense of security when relied on entirely, but a solid foam makes some kids feel less "OMG ITS GONNA POP AND I WILL DIE" as they build their skills.

It might not just be eyes, it also might be ears. Have not tried these, but they may help.

I'd have him help pick it out, and let him try them out in the shower and the bath, let him practice with them and get into it as his own pace. If there are any of those, what do you call them, zero entry pools locally that you can explore as a family, that might help too.

One thing that I kept on with our screaming kids was being in the pool with them and that it was a big safety factor in knowing how to be calm and safe in water, even if they didn't enjoy it. "Swim to the wall for safety!"

Strong wind problem reminds me of a cousin who had Tourettes. She showed the same fears and anxieties, and had to work their way up to doing what they had to (goggles in the water, sunglasses outside) to minimize the disliked situations (water, wind).
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 12:54 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We thought the same thing, and bought him goggles on Monday. We (and the counselors) explained that if his eyes had been irritated by the chlorine, the goggles would now protect them. He wore them on Tuesday and still refused to get in the pool. :(
posted by zarq at 12:55 PM on July 11, 2014

You probably know this, but he doesn't have to go in the pool. My son (3) doesn't like getting wet except in the bath. All his friends play in the sprinkler at daycare and he just... doesn't. It seems sad to me, but he doesn't really care so I don't push it. Maybe just give him the space to hang out and watch if he's upset by the idea hopping in.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:57 PM on July 11, 2014 [14 favorites]

Can he wear the goggles in the shower, though?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:58 PM on July 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, let him wear goggles/snorkel mask everywhere, around the house, in the shower, at the dinner table. Imbue them with a special air of protection against any threats. Make them an idol.
posted by elizardbits at 1:01 PM on July 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

Wanting him to have the chance to go in the pool at camp means this might not meet your needs, but we got two kids who were anxious about water over it by paying for a short course of private lessons, one instructor working with just the two of them. They were more willing to try things for the instructor than for me, and she did a great job of meeting them where they were. One of my kids still doesn't care much for being in the water, but he is at least not afraid of it any more. The other isn't a strong swimmer, but is comfortable enough in the water to play with friends in pools and to go down the slides at the waterpark.
posted by not that girl at 1:02 PM on July 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear about this: I can imagine it's very frustrating for you and your son! I'm a former swimming instructor and current educator who's worked swimmers of various levels and hope I can help a bit. FWIW, despite being a very experienced swimmer, I got a little scared the first time I swam into the deep end of a new pool this summer; of course, I stayed calm and felt completely confident a few laps later, but it really reminded me of how everyone can get a little frightened at times! I think it's great that you and the counselors have been so accepting of his fear and not pushing him to do anything drastic; it also sounds like his fellow campers are being understanding, which speaks highly of his group!

I'd start by letting him off the hook in that this doesn't have to be his summer to learn how to swim. You could say that you are confident that he will learn eventually but that you want to take the pressure off now and excuse him from having to swim at camp. Perhaps you could brainstorm an alternative, pool-related activity for him so he doesn't have to just sit there. For example, he could help organize kick boards and the like.

So, after taking the pressure off, I'd start brainstorming with him how you all are going to work together to get more comfortable with the water. ("I understand that you are scared right now and that's OK. I believe in you and am sure you will able to swim one day. You don't have get into the pool this summer at camp but let's make a plan of little things we can start doing to get ready! What do you think you could do right? Would you be willing to dip your toes in if I hold you hand?Etc.") I totally agree with previous writers that picking out a cool pair of goggles together is a good start. I'd then plan together little steps to take, not thinking of an end goal but just like, "dip toes into side of 3-foot pool with parent for 30 seconds" and keep building up from there.

There are times when "just do it!" is the right approach but I agree with you that being gentle is best right now. I truly believe that, little by little, with his deciding what risks to take and when and the with your praise and understanding, your son will be a swimmer in the near future. It may take a few years and he may never love the pool (or bath), but he can certainly become more comfortable. Good luck!

[Note: Again, you sound like an incredibly caring parent. It sounds as if you're a little freaked out yourself, which is totally understandable. However, I'd really try to be as chill as possible because your son might subconsciously be picking up on it and getting a little more scared himself. (I say based on my own reactions at times but I don't mean to project or assume if it's not the case. :-)]
posted by smorgasbord at 1:03 PM on July 11, 2014 [16 favorites]

OH ALSO do you have access to something like a shallow kiddie pool that can be filled by a hose in the yard? Something where there is no chance of water being high enough to touch his face, and there is no all-over washing expectations like there is in the bath or shower.

Also have you considered outright bribery, it was the only thing that worked with me as a kid.
posted by elizardbits at 1:07 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd go about this a different way vs. the googles (just because water still gets in googles, and it might have nothing to do with this).

I would try to make him 1) feel absolutely safe in the water and 2) do this through games.

So you can go the pool with him on Saturday,and absolutely promise no face in the water on that day. He can play with a floatie type device if they are allowed, talk to you, joke around, but he can understand that on Saturday, he does not need to put his face in the water. Assure him the towel is nearby if someone else accidently gets his face wet.

Now day two (or next week). You won't force him to do anything he doesn't want to, but does he want to play games with you? Who can blow the most bubbles in the pool? Who can put their nose into the water? Etc. Games, just games.

That is all I would try for the moment since he is very young. If he were a bit older, you can also have a final challenge (jump into the pool), but that is only with more skill sets for swimming, plus comfort level is there.Nthing not that that girls' suggestion.He may respond one on one with someone who works with water anxiety.

On preview, he can try these same games in the bathtub, or in a play pool, etc. Those places might be a better place to try these things.
posted by Wolfster at 1:10 PM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

You could just let him not swim for a while. Wait until he shows a comfort, or at least and interest, to it.

I have the exact same thing with the face wet sensation. Goggles don't help, they really don't. In fact, when they get water in there and it can't get out? There's water against the skin OH GOD. It's a sensory thing. The best way to describe it for me is that the face is SO sensitive that cool water? Feels like it's freezing. Warm water? Too hot. Plus? Something TOUCHING the skin there? Feels like a million microscopic pins, almost. Not painful, but I can feel it intensely, it's very uncomfortable, and I can't get the offending object off my face fast enough.

I still have it, at age 44. I no longer have complete freakouts when things get on my face, but I don't wear makeup at all. When I do swim (which isn't very often), I do things like aqua jogging and water aerobics. There's still a chance water gets on the face, but it's not expected. I can stand a washcloth now, but it hasn't gone away - I've just adapted. When I do swim? I do a backstroke.

If you're really interested in getting him exposed to the pool, maybe something like aerobics? Not a full on class, but something like arm and leg swirls, etc. Things that are gentle movements and don't cause a splash.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:10 PM on July 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah - a kid with 'face on things' sensory issues? Throwing him into the water unannounced to get exposed will just ensure that he will never, ever, ever get into a pool again.

I'd highly recommend that that approach NOT be taken.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:13 PM on July 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

I did this when I was six (my mother says I sat five feet back from the pool edge and SHRIEEEEEEEKED every time anyone got within six feet of me to pre-emptively deter them from trying to make me go in the pool). My parents hired a suuuuuuuuper-cool teenager for about six private "lessons," which weren't even swimming, they were just about, I was willing to at least get in the water for the chance to hang out with her because she was coooooooool.

She did teach me how to blow out through my nose so water didn't go up it, but otherwise it was just getting in the water, one-on-one, where it was calm, and a cool "grown-up" was paying lots of attention to me.

(As an adult I do know HOW to swim and I have passed swim tests and stuff, but I prefer not to and when I do swim I hardly ever put my head in the water, uggggh. I also hate hate hate baths (showers are fine), I do not understand what people like about sitting in warm water on purpose; and I absolutely loathe being rained on and having wet clothes against my skin, uggggggh.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:24 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, maybe give him a week or two off from the coaxing -- I remember it being very stressful that people KEPT ASKING me to get in the pool and I felt sure that if I did go in the pool, I'd have to ALWAYS go in the pool, and it all felt very high-tension. Maybe you can talk to the camp and then tell him, "You can always go in the pool if you want, but nobody's gonna bug you about it for a couple weeks."

Maybe camp could also find some poolside tasks for him to do, like returning balls that go astray from the pool games. Or he could throw the floating toys for the other kids to swim out and get, and they bring them back for him to throw. Things like that so he doesn't feel left out while he sidelines himself.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:27 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let him sit on the side of the pool with his feet and lower legs in the water, and just chat. Not about "isn't this fun" and "isn't the water nice? You want to jump in?" but just about everyday things. Take all of the pressure off. When he's used to doing that, have him stand in the shallow end, but stand still with him. Get some floats and show him how the buoyancy of the human body works too. Show him that being in the water is a value neutral thing. I had the "It's fun, dammit!" thing pushed onto me when I was his age, and it just backfired.

I was freaked out by the pool as a kid, too, and I still don't like swimming. Getting into a pool full of people who are jostling about all over the place, especially when I can't work out exactly where they are in relation to me due to the refraction of the water, freaks me out. There's too much going on at one time.

I always loved the bath, though. I think the difference was that there was only me in the bath. I was in control of the splashing and where the water went, and if I wanted, I could just sit still and the water wouldn't move. There was no horrible chlorine smell that made me feel like I was having a nosebleed if it went up my nose either. I remember my mom trying to coerce me into the swimming pool when I was about 6ish, and the swimming instructor got me to sit by the side of the pool on a chair, watching other people in the pool. I know now what that was all about, but at the time, it was like I was watching people suffer. It wasn't at all making me feel like maybe I could get in there too because all of these other people were having fun. Ykid'sMMV.
posted by Solomon at 1:33 PM on July 11, 2014

I have the wet-face sensory issue too, and never really learned how to swim. It's been a battle my whole life and nobody dealt with it nearly as well as it sounds like you're handling it right now, so thank goodness for your kid. The only thing that got me minimally okay was that when I was way too old already my parents informed me that they were super worried about my safety, and that, for them, so that I wouldn't be giving them heart attacks, I had to learn how to float, and understand the mechanics of swimming.

I was a tween at the time so super sensitive about body image, and it sucked beyond the telling of it, but they bribed me with (I'm pretty sure there was more than this but this is what I remember): cold hard cash money, the fact that my private swim "tutor" (I was more comfortable with that term) was wicked hot, a bedroom makeover, absolute promises about increased privacy and alone time from them, and my favorite meals for dinner every day I had a swimming lesson for the whole summer (most often sushi, which at the time was still really strange and cool and expensive. I think I had a vindictive thing about animals that swam and wanting to devour them out of spite). (I was a pill!)

What actually happened was: My swim tutor first of all kicked my parents out entirely, and then begged me to spend time with him just standing in the shallow end while we discussed everything he'd be teaching me. He had diagrams and instructions all waterproof laminated so I could see what I was supposed to be doing in the pool. There was never at any time pressure for me to get my face wet, and he himself wore goggles the whole time so I didn't feel that weird. I learned how to tread water, float on my back, kick with a kickboard, kick on my back, steer with my arms, and a bunch of basic water safety stuff, all framed so that if I got dumped into the water during an emergency I wouldn't drown. I know how to make a float out of my pants!

My face did get wet, though, because after a month of lessons my swim tutor was unabashedly flirting with me to get me to do stuff and we had splash fights, which I was entirely 12-year-old okay with.

At the time I was probably happiest about the increase in my allowance, but looking back on it the real benefit was watching my mother unclench when later than summer we got into a canoe on a lake and I wasn't visibly nervous.

All of this is to say that sometimes people just aren't swimmers, but your kid probably is picking up your anxiety and running with it. If you can give him clear instructions about how he can help you out, with firm goals and achievable steps in between, a lot of the secondary anxiety will shake out. Move your expectations away from "good swimmer who loves social pool time" over to "safe around water" and chances are he'll pass that goal and end up happily splashing around in a couple of years. And it doesn't hurt to hook him up with attention from a trustworthy adult who he really likes.
posted by Mizu at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

Here is what worked for my kid. My daughter was younger but some of these principles still apply.
- You have to help your kid get comfortable in the water. A stranger will fail without your presence.
- Think of some skill appropriate games that are interesting and that he can complete with success. Prioritize games over swim drills.
- Shorter, more frequent excursions are more effective than longer ones. You may be out of the water in 10 minutes. Be OK with this.

At age six, he will be interested in what his peers are doing. Bring a trusted swimmer friend his age along for encouragement and demonstration purposes. This is a case where you can use peer pressure from a well-chosen and supportive peer for good ends.

I might start with standing in the water and playing monkey in the middle with a ball that doesn't hurt when it hits you in the head. Put the swimmer kid as the monkey in the middle. Likely your son will enjoy this and will get splashed.

Also, my daughter enjoyed standing in water and then fetching items from the water with goggles on. At first, use water shallow enough that he can fetch the items without putting his face in the water, and throw some a bit deeper for his friend. As your son becomes more comfortable, he may eventually copy his friend and get some items from deeper water (it could be a race to fetch items).

A splash pad is another good alternative for a summer day. Your kid and his friend go play under the sprinklers. Many have wading pools as well. You can do floats, etc in water just a foot or two deep. Being able to stand easily is very reassuring for a kid and they can progress quickly in this environment.

Your son can choose whether or not to participate in these fun games. He can just wait there while you play in the water with his friend. He may behave very differently if he sees you playing with some other kid for 10 minutes and having fun. It might help to have the second parent on pool deck to supervise in case there is temper tantrum. Don't let the other kid go home without a water play and have your son wait around while you finish.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2014

My youngest never liked water or baths from infancy. He shrieked his way through bathing time til he was about 2 and a half. We did things that eventually got him to not scream, and taking him to the ocean to "punch and chop" the waves on the incoming tide did a lot to get him over the fear of getting in the water, especially with a lifesaving grade lifejacket. (that was me, I still have issues with my babies in water)

Anyway, he's 9 now and will go in the pool for a bit but not swim and dunk like his water baby brother. We got him a snorkel kit, and he uses that in the bath all the time. I don't know about showers. It's only in the last year or so that he's started taking those.

I should say he uses the mask. I took the snorkel bit away as he wasn't using it properly and I didn't want to have him drowning in the tub, of all things.

This past summer camp, he was given the choice of trying to swim a certain distance and not needing a life jacket, or just using the jacket. He chose the jacket. He sees his brother doing flips and diving deep and having all sorts of fun, but he hasn't worked himself up to wanting to do the same. We're just letting it be.

I'm thinking that letting it be at the camp will be fine. He can watch others have fun and just chill. As for the showers - I forget how old he is, but maybe a sponge bath for a while will either calm him down or make him feel too babied so that he goes back to baths or showers. Throw a towel down in the bottom of the tub, have him sit on it, and wash him like an infant.
posted by lysdexic at 1:49 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

How can we convince him the pool is fun, safe and comfortable?

As an adult, snorkeling and swimming in the ocean is literally my favorite thing to do, I structure my whole year around getting at least one big snorkeling vacation in and I have happily given lessons to complete strangers so they could enjoy this fantastic thing.

But. As a kid I was terrified of the water. And I can't help but think that trying to convince your kid that this chlorinated pool full of kids is fun, safe or comfortable is a lost cause because it is literally none of those things. It is not fun (for him). It is not safe (if you can't swim and are jumpy with anxiety). And it is definitely not comfortable! Let him read or draw on a bench while the other kids swim. Maybe he will develop an interest in joining before the end of the summer. Maybe he won't! In the meantime, I can't think of anything more terrifying than having to go in the water with a bunch of kids when you're scared. What if you slip. What if another kid splashes you or puts your head under water. Why is everyone screaming with joy. Ugh, ugh, ugh.
posted by kate blank at 2:14 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Has he had "formal" swim lessons before, or is this a special swim camp with proper instructors?

If not...I would have been super anxious too! I found that proper (group or private) lessons, with a curriculum, gold stars and benchmarks to aim for...that's what I needed to learn. I can't really imagine learning something that could KILL ME if I messed a chaotic "just go for it" play environment. But I was always a pretty cautious kid, for the most part. Maybe he needs gradual confidence building instead of the heckling he may be getting from his peers (which will just get him more anxious, of course).

And I assume you've asked him why he doesn't want to go in. I mean, as a 5 year old, I certainly would have also said "I dun wanna!", so I figure that won't get you all that far...
posted by aggyface at 3:10 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

What about just letting him not swim?

It sounds like this kid just really, fundamentally does not like to be immersed in water. Why not simply respect that?

If you stick goggles on him and pressure him into the pool, then he's going to be the only kid there wearing goggles on top of being terrified and miserable because he's in the water.

So you're making him look weird in front of all the other kids while simultaneously forcing him to do something to which he has an intense, primal aversion.

That doesn't sound like a good idea to me at all.

He has found what for him at this time is an acceptable solution. He'll just chill to the side during the swimming and participate in activities where he's comfortable. What is so bad about that?

And keep in mind this doesn't mean he's barred from swimming for life. You can always try again next summer, or in a few years.
posted by trevor_case at 3:10 PM on July 11, 2014

It's heartening to see so many scared-of-water-as-kids people here, and to see it so well described. It's a great reminder of how scary and unfamiliar the whole thing is for a kid. I was definitely one of those, and I remember it coming on suddenly too - one day I was okay with going in the pool, the next I was scared. I don't remember what happened though. Could have been a water-in-the-nose moment maybe? There are so many elements that can make the pool scary - the feeling of water on the face, the pressure of water around your torso makes breathing feel slightly harder, the chance of getting water up the nose or in the eyes, the weirdness of water in your ears, the fact of having to coordinate simultaneous body movements (eg arms and legs and being aware of breathing), the noisiness/unpredictability of other people in the pool splashing, the new social setting to master, the possibility of something mysterious coming up from underneath you, etc.

I'll second the idea that too much pressure isn't great, and you're quite right that throwing him in the pool is likely to backfire bigtime.

I think a lot of the anxiety I felt about swimming was a control thing. (So an adult tossing you into the water would be the worst!)

If you think about it, swimming is like one of those cruel obstacle-course game shows. Altered buoyancy gives you less control over your movements, while at the same time, chlorinated water adds several new penalties (water in nose, eyes, mouth) for losing control. It's like putting you on rollerskates on a sloping surface, and saying you'll get slimed or shocked if you fall.

But I do think gentle persistent exposure to the safe basics is a good idea -- some self-paced one-on-one time with mom or dad, or a cool teacher, during a quiet time at the pool. It's always a little scary to learn new skills but still, we can hang in there and do the scary thing. Being able to float on his back, tread water, and dog-paddle are all skills he can do without putting his face in the water, and they'll help him to maintain control over whether his face gets wet when he does go in.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:14 PM on July 11, 2014

Just a few more things - is he skinny (ie maybe less buoyant than other kids) and does he get cold easily? Both are things that could make the pool less fun. And if he is feeling anxious about keeping his face well above the water, so his back/torso is tensing up and he's having to paddle extra hard, then he'll tire more quickly - so he'll be feeling on the edge of "too tired to keep up this amount of effort", which is never a good feeling in water.

I realize this isn't a solution, but just more data points for the empathy bank, in case it helps in considering what his actual objections are, on the way to solutions.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:28 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wasn't sure if this has been mentioned yet, but are the instructors in the pool with him, or are they directing from the outer edge? I remember my friends and I clinging to our dad's and mom's backs, holding hands, doing things together in the water, splashing away from eachother, sitting on the stairs and flutterkicking together. That's how we got more comfortable with being in the water, feeling secure that someone would rescue us and was within a hands reach (and also experiencing the water in the same way we were, not leaning over and giving directions).

He may be more comfortable with you/another adult he trusts being in the water with him, as well as being able to spend time on gentle slopes where his whole body isn't immersed/immersed at his own rate (like the wheelchair ramp, or the stairs). The shallow end is still pretty deep for 6 year olds. If you give him a flutterboard as well as goggles, that will keep his face and a bit of his torso up and out of the water too.

Playing in the sprinkler/slip n slide/water guns/water balloons might put some fun back into water activities, as it sounds like all water is freaking him out a bit right now.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 3:41 PM on July 11, 2014

I think you're focusing too much on wanting him to swim. The bathing issue seems more important right now. He may be less sensitive to water as a whole if he's not being pushed into it from multiple places. Let the swimming thing go for now.

I am 42 years old and I still do not like water on my face. I hate water in my ears. I won't put my head under water. I'll shower now, but all through my childhood I took baths. Growing up, I despised people telling me that I would have so much more fun if I did the things that -they- considered fun, such as diving into the water. Why couldn't they just respect that -I- didn't see it as fun? Maybe someday he will change - maybe even next year. Kids can change quickly. Or maybe he'll be 42 and still won't find the water to be fun. I'm not a parent, but from my memory I can tell you that no one could force me to have "fun" when it wasn't something I enjoyed.

I'm not sure how to get him to bathe, other than trying a bath instead of a shower. My mother washed my hair in the sink to better keep the water out of my face. I was allowed to wash my own face with a wash cloth. That gave me the control.
posted by veerat at 5:05 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your title suggests that this camp pool time is for learning to swim, which suggests that he does not know how. I cannot imagine even being in a crazy, unstructured camp pool time situation without knowing how to swim. I would be terrified.

Let this camp session go without pushing him to swim. Then, get him proper lessons (private if necessary) as learning to swim is an essential life skill.

My little guy hated his face in the water too, but he got over it with proper swim lessons. Yes, he fought me a lot there too, but I found the right instructor who pushed hard enough to accomplish the goal (learning to swim). She was a kind, but firm, touch. Many of her students were scared and cried like my son, but she confidently pushed them all to learn. She was kind of hard core about insisting that no kid drown from lack of knowledge.

We definitely did not enjoy the few few lessons--lots of tears -- but I was adamant he learn and we kept at it. By the end of a two week session, he was swimming the length of the pool, face in water, proudly and happily. That said, I could not have done it without the confident guiding hand of a professional. It was super hard on me too, but I had the teacher's word that he would get over his fears, the countless testimonials of parents with kids like mine who swore by her method, and the fact that I am my child's parent and I have to protect him as much as I can and learning to swim is critical to keeping a child safe. And my son was not scarred and loved his teacher at the end.

You are super caring and want your child to have fun and be safe. Maybe searching around for the right professional in your area can help for future pool camps. Good luck!
posted by murrey at 6:45 PM on July 11, 2014

The sudden turnaround speaks heavily of bullying by at least one of the other children.

I'm speaking out of my butt, but perhaps instilling confidence in swimming in your kid could help. If you can find the time/money (for a coach), go to the pool with your little one and swim together. Increase their confidence in their swimming skills by getting them to try to emulate you and increase the difficulty incrementally. Having someone they trust (providing that you swim proficiently) will help more than anything else.

Skills like breath holding(!), water skulling, diving, other under-water maneuvers, and swimming entirely under water are all helpful, as might low-energy surface swimming skills that are useful for distance.

If its a bully problem, if the kid gets confident enough around being in water, bully vanquished.
posted by porpoise at 10:07 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does he have any breathing or sinus issues? Water, or really getting anything near your face, isn't very fun when you already are having trouble breathing anyway. That also makes buoyancy difficult (because you don't have big lungs full of air to push you up), it makes it difficult to do the "blowing bubbles under water" thing and you constantly get water up your nose, and since you can't keep your mouth open while you're in water it quickly becomes horrible and exhausting just to stand in the water not-really-able-to-breathe. Plus, there can be inner-ear and therefore balance issues involved with anything that effects the sinuses.

As a sort of sidenote, I dislike the water. Some people just do. I think that trying to convince your son to *like* the pool or water in general is a lost cause, because you can't make someone like anything. It's OK if he doesn't like the water or doesn't like the pool.
posted by rue72 at 10:12 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does he like animals? Maybe watching a dog swim would have a positive effect on him and break him out of his fear.
posted by Dansaman at 10:15 PM on July 11, 2014

I had this with my five year old and getting her some cool goggles fixed it right up.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:01 AM on July 12, 2014

One of my kids was like this. I went the goggle route. I stopped with the swim lessons. At camp she wouldn't swim. Now at 22 she swims and snorkels and surfs and gets her face RIGHTINTHERE.

I asked her if she remembered screaming and clinging to my leg and refusing to take baths or showers or of course, swim.

She did remember. She said this, "Splashing around in the kiddie pool was fun but I remember when I had my first swim lesson all of a sudden it was HOW TO MAKE BUBBLES AND KICK YOUR LEGS AND MOVE YOUR ARMS and I knew that if I couldn't do all of those things PERFECTLY AT THE SAME TIME, I would die."

That perspective makes sense. Water is fun but for some kids, there's this OMG realization that you have to do something unnatural with your arms. And your legs. And blowing bubbles and not inhaling water and not choking? It's all pretty scary stuff. The breathing especially...that can be a tricky skill. And if you're a kid and you've seen someone inhale water and come up sputtering, that's pretty scary.

One thing you could do (I mean, when it was my kid I just dropped it) is practice the breathing. Get the goggles on and get a kickboard. You hold one end of the kickboard, your kid holds the other. Take them for a ride...goggles on, no weird bubble blowing. It will feel weird and a little unnatural because the kid is trying to keep their face out of the water. So then they can practice taking a breath and sticking in their chin while they blow out. Then they stick in their mouth. Emphasize the fun fishy BLURBBLURGBLURB noises. Make fun choo choo sounds. And so it goes, until they've got their whole face in.

It may work. It may not be worth your sanity. But it's an option.
posted by kinetic at 5:48 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

It was around 7 or 8 years old that I started getting really uncomfortable when my face gets wet. I think part of the issue for me was that I had pretty severe allergies and constant sinus issues as a kid -- getting water in my nose always felt like burning. I refused to learn to swim until I was around 14 or 15, when I decided it might be a good idea just in case. After forcing myself to learn to swim adequately, I went back to avoiding water as much as possible.

I'm 34 now, and I still have to force myself past the discomfort of my face getting wet to shower and such. Every couple of years I'll step into a swimming pool for a little while, just to make sure I still know how to swim, but, for me, this discomfort is something not likely to go away. I figure being in the water just isn't for everyone.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:59 AM on July 12, 2014

I've been dealing with the same thing. My 4 yr old granddaughter is not afraid of the water and she loves being in the pool. I signed her up for swimming lessons b/c I feel it's an important skill that everyone should know. The first 3 or 4 classes she wouldn't get off the steps. We wouldn't let her leave the steps and she was reluctant to even consider every suggestion the instructor had as to getting her in the water. One day this instructor was ill and there was a new instructor that F had never laid eyes on before. Within 5 minutes she was in the water and smiling! She did everything the instructor asked of her, even floating on her back (which she wouldn't do for her own father!) and jumping off the edge into her arms. Since then it's all been good, even with the other instructor.

Sometimes it's a matter of pairing them up with the right individual. As we all know, sometimes people just don't mesh.

Give him time and just keep encouraging him. And when he *does get in the water, celebrate like crazy!! F knows how proud we are of her for conquering her fears and it inspires her to do more.

Good luck!
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 10:15 AM on July 12, 2014

I'm another one with water-in-the-face sensory issues. Although back when I was a kid it didn't have a name and wasn't recognized as anything other than me being a "baby" and a "'fraidy cat" (even so-called by adult instructors). The few times I was cajoled into putting my face in the water, I immediately reached for a towel when I surfaced and it was snatched from my reach, I was told to just swipe the water away with my fingers, etc. None of which helped. What finally worked was not goggles, but what I guess is now called a "scuba mask." It was big enough to cover my eyes and my nose. I looked like a geek*, but I was able to comfortably splash around in the pool and eventually even learned go underwater. (*Not that this has stuck in my craw 30-some years later, but even after I was able to go in and under the water with my mask, these same "adults" would taunt me that I wasn't really "swimming" while wearing the mask.)
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:42 AM on July 12, 2014

Between the time I fell off a dock and nearly drowned when I was about 2 and a half and a few years later when I gave in to peer pressure, I was a brat about getting in the pool. Finally, one day, a friend's mom took her kids and me to the Boy's Club where her kids were having swim lessons. I felt left out enough that I decided it would be OK to at least try to get in the water. Between an instructor a foot away from me and a kickboard to float on, it happened.

I never was taught to swim correctly, but that one experience proved to my 5 year old self that I could in fact tread water and stay above water if I really had to, so I became reasonably comfortable with the shallow end where I could stand up and still keep my head above water.

Basically, baby steps and not being forced into it, just made to tag along with people who were getting in the pool solved it for me. Goggles, nose plugs, and ear plugs definitely helped as well. The nose and eye burning can be done without, IMO.
posted by wierdo at 11:04 AM on July 12, 2014

How warm is the pool? After a slow start (and a great instructor, who had a daughter my age with whom I became friends) I loved swimming. But I was a skinny little kid and hated cold pool water, and many pool owners skimp on heating. Swimming loses its charm when you start freezing the minute you stop and rest and/or find yourself swimming in the shady end of the pool. OTOH, my godparents knew how much I preferred warmer water and always heated their pool up especially for me, and you couldn't pry me out of the water until I was a giant sunburnt prune.

Little kids often need the water to be a few degrees warmer than adults do. If the water is too cold for you to be comfortable in, it's definitely too cold for your kid.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:45 AM on July 12, 2014

If this were my kid, I would switch to baths for a while and call a break from swimming for a bit. Maybe let the anxiety quiet down a little. As a kid, and even as an adult, feeling pressured to do something, even something good for me, caused a ramp up of anxiety and I dug my heels in. He's young, you have lots of time, I'd give him some time where he doesn't have to worry about confronting his fear, then have a gentle re-do where he isn't pressured to enter the water if he doesn't want to. Perhaps somewhere there isn't a lot of splashing and there is a beach-like gentle entry into the water so he can control his level of interaction with the water.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:42 PM on July 12, 2014

Response by poster: Good lord.

I can't believe how fantastic all of your answers have been. Thank you so much, everyone for your advice. I was aware that some people had a fear of swimming, but didn't realize that it was a common problem. I'll try to respond to some of you directly in-thread over the next couple of days, (and may be back to ask for more advice!) but for now here's an update:

Yesterday we took my son to a pool party, and spent nearly the whole time talking with him.

As I mentioned upthread, we had bought him goggles. What I didn't realize: he hadn't used them at all. He panicked while wearing them while outside the pool, and never went into the water.

So here are the fears he voiced:

* He was afraid of not being able to breathe.
* Afraid of having an asthma attack in the pool.
* The water is too cold.
* Too much splashing from the other kids.
* The water burns his eyes. (Didn't wear his goggles!)
* He's afraid the water will be too deep.
* He's afraid of sinking. And that his arm floaties will fail. Or that a floaty board will slip away from him.
* He's afraid of drowning.
* Doesn't understand how he can keep his body above water.
* Doesn't want to get his face wet. Or his ears. Or to get water in his mouth or nose or ears. This is partially a sensory issue. Partially a temperature issue (water is too cold) and partially a fear of not being able to breathe underwater.

We talked for a long time. When I got home I wrote down the above list so we can talk to his counselors and the life guard. I'm going to take a couple of evenings this week and take him to a pool so we can work together. I'm going to get him a snorkeling mask next weekend, if he agrees.

I also gave him an out: if at any point he wants to stop going in the pool, he can. He doesn't need to learn to swim this year. But he wants to swim with his friends. And he wants to impress his counselors (and perhaps us.) So he's going to work at it.

But.... yesterday he walked in and out of the pool about a hundred times while we were talking. Holding my hands, but otherwise by himself. Feet in, feet out. Up to his knees. Then out. Over and over again. After 3 hours, he was wall-crawling in the 3' zone. A HUGE accomplishment. We were cheering for him. :) We'll have to see if he's willing to do it again today at camp. He's also still panicking over getting his face wet.

We're addressing some of the things he mentioned. He's stepping in and out of the water quickly and not giving his body time to acclimate itself. It's perfectly possible that the water is still too cold, but at the very least we're going to see how he feels if he keeps his feet and legs in for five minutes. We're starting breathing exercises (as an asthmatic, he already knows some of them. He counts his breath to calm his breathing during asthma attacks.)

More to come.
posted by zarq at 11:21 AM on July 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

That's great news that he does want to learn and is giving it a try! For what it's worth, when I was little I also hated how cold pools seemed. (still do on the rare occasion I swim at home) I would creep into the pool slowly trying to give myself time to acclimate. It always sucked. So freakin' cold.

This may not be doable at the moment since your son is still concerned with water in his eyes/ears, but I finally figured out that jumping in and just getting it over with made the acclimation almost instant. It feels stupid cold when first hitting the water, but that sensation goes away within a couple of seconds. Going in slowly down the steps or ladder or whatever just dragged it out for many minutes. I don't know about other kids, but that was always my motivation for doing the whole cannonball thing.
posted by wierdo at 2:42 PM on July 19, 2014

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