How to Help Children Overcome Fear of the Water - Just Some Thoughts
Patience and Understanding Required
What parents often don't realize about children who are fearful of the water is that some very bright children often have more fear. That's because they are mature enough to know there is danger. Other children may simply not be developmentally ready to learn to swim. Still others may have had a bad experience (or several) in water. When children have had the unpleasant experience of slipping under the water and ending up choking they learn that - if nothing else - water can be unpleasant. Keeping a child's fear of the water in the right perspective is the first. Parents need - first and foremost - to have understanding and patience. When parents don't show understanding and patience a child will not see parents as "being on the same page" . A child cannot trust the parent who has "his own agenda" (rather than a shared one with the child), so that does not help the situation.
While the world is full of people who began swimming before they were two years old, it is also full of people who took substantially longer to learn to swim, but who thoroughly enjoy the water once they do.
When two- or three-year olds are afraid of water deeper than a toddler's wading pool it may make sense to wait until they're older to try to teach them to swim.
The American Academy of Pediatrics' Injury Prevention Program notes that children are generally developmentally ready to learn to swim at around five years of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swimming lessons for children over age four. According to the AAP, children four and younger are not developmentally ready to learn proper swimming techniques.
Children four and older are generally most comfortable in water that is shallow enough to allow them to stand up with sureness. A child's backyard pool (bigger than a preschooler's wading pool) can offer a child slightly deeper water in which to do some experimental moves. So can the shallow part of a lake. If the child can play in water that is hip-high graduating to waist-high water is not a very big step.
Giving your child plenty of opportunity to get comfortable in waist-high water, and to experiment with floating and dog paddling is a way to allow him to feel surer with the water, itself.
Chest-high water offers yet more possibilities for becoming sure in the water. Water this deep allows a child to try navigating under water if he wants. Practicing opening his eyes under water may be something he'd like to try. A swimming pool with water this deep offers walls from which a child can launch himself and possibly get himself to the other side of the pool using his arms. At this point, a child may be ready to try summersaults in the water.
What all this gradual introduction to water accomplishes is allowing the reluctant swimmer-to-be to gain confidence in the water and on his own terms. Essentially, he gets to know the water and his own abilities better. When a child is allowed to get to know the water on his own terms he is more likely to find being in that water fun. He is in control. He knows what he is confident enough to try and isn't being pressured to try something that makes him feel too nervous.
For the child who has no fear this gradual process may not be necessary; but for the child who is too unsure of the water, himself, or the person who is trying to teach him to swim, this process is one way to encourage him to enjoy the water and gain enough confidence to want to learn to swim.
This may be a longer process than many parents prefer, but the child who has gotten to know the water and his abilities better needs only to learn swimming techniques, and teaching swimming technques to a child who already knows the water (and likes it) is easier than teaching a child who sees the water as a strange, frightening, thing in which he may drown (or feel like he is drowning more than once).
Even when children have learned proper swimming techniques and are quite skilled, guidelines regarding child safety in water recommend one adult per child, with the adult being within reach of that child. Even children who have taken swimming lessons must be supervised. Safety guidelines with regard to boating include life jackets for child, and, again, one adult per child. What this means is that while swimming lessons are recommended for all children who are developmentally ready to learn, a child's life should not be placed in his own hands even if he can swim well. Until a child is no longer a child his life is in the hands of the adult who supervises him in or around the water.
So, even though it is recommended that all children learn to swim once they pass four years of age, if a child takes an extra year or two to learn it probably won't - in the long run - make all that much of a difference. He will still have plenty of years for developing the swimming skill needed to one day has his life in his own hands.