Blog guest: Jasmina Mihnjak, a psychologist Editor of the Parenthood Portal Bebac.com
Updated: Apr 1
How can we make our children like water and swimming?
How can we turn the resistance to swimming into a successful cooperation? How can we make our children like water and swimming? How can we make it easy for children to go to a swim school? About this topic, for Swimming Dad as a #Blog guest, from a psychologist’s point of view, speaks Master in Psychology, editor of the parenthood portal Bebac.com, and a mother of one little princess, Jasmina Mihnjak. She is someone who makes changes in the world of new-borns, babies, parents and their rights to quality life.
When a baby comes to this world, everything around is new to him/her. He/she is coming from another world, and our basic task is to show him/her that this world is a safe place. That is the main guide for all other new activities.
If we are swimming with our baby, the good news is that the water is the environment which is familiar to the baby. Babies spend nine months in the water, so swimming can calm the baby down as it reminds him/her of the life in the uterus. However, as it is the case with other inborn reflexes, once we stop using them and don’t have the need to use them they tend to disappear, and the ability to dive is one of them. With or without diving, every baby is likely to feel nice in the water, especially when accompanied by a parent. What the baby tends not to like, however, is the unknown surrounding, so if the baby starts crying that does not necessarily mean that he/she doesn’t like the water.. he/she might not like the light or the noise, or he/she might just be hungry and feels unsafe or senses the fear felt by the parents.
When it comes to a bit older child, one should bear in mind that all the new things we introduce into our kids’ life can bring uneasiness and a feeling of unsafety. On the other hand, a new surrounding is exactly the place where we build trust. Everything you bring into the life of your child you should do it by keeping the parent – child relationship. Don’t forget it. Even when you are giving your baby the first rattle toy, do it in a gentle way first, and follow the reactions of the baby. Your behaviour should tell the baby – look at this, it is safe, and look how interesting it is.
First swimming with mum and dad
Once we forget that we all have come from the water, swimming indeed can be a challenging but extremely important skill. It is crucial that the child feels safe! This is why it is important that we swim together with the child first, that we help the child learn about the water, build trust and avoid all those things which sometimes can permanently install the fear of water in our children. So, don’t ever:
Force your child to get into the water against his/her will
Unexpectedly throw your child into the water
Trick and duck your child into the water
Leave your child in the water alone (without surveillance, not even in the smallest pools)
Shout and quarrel with your child, reprimand while you’re in the pool
What you should do instead is to:
Gradually make your child familiar with the water, in the way that you first get your child wet a bit, and then splash each other in the shallow water. You should ideally have other children around in the pool laughing, splashing and enjoying it.
Make sure that your child gets positive feelings related to the water and swimming. Hug and cuddle in the water, lough and sing together.
Praise your child for making a progress
Ask for advice and services of a swim instructor
Here I would like to mention a wonderful programme – mum and dad, swim with us. The program has been designed in the way which helps the children and their parents relax in the pool, and it’s amazing! Feeling safe with the parent, in the company of other children, structured activities with loads of fun are liberating for children. After just a few lessons I had attended with my daughter, she stopped making a fuss about washing her hair. And she also started jumping into the water before long, which had been out of the question before the lessons.
What I would like to recommend to all the parents is to start with such a programme before they enrol their children in swim schools, because in such programmes parents and children are together in the pool. The children will gain confidence in their safe zone and they will properly learn swimming skills from their coach from the very beginning.
My child doesn’t want to get into the water
The fact that little Ben has swam from the one side of the pool to the other has nothing to do with your child. Every child has his/her own pace, and what matters most is to get to know your child first.
What to do when the child doesn’t want to get into the water at all? Well, he/she doesn’t have to, the worst thing you could do is to force him/her. The same applies to any other sport.
Observe your child and how he/she feels about the water. If your child loves playing in the shallows on the beach, that’s a great thing. That still is a contact with the water. If he/she doesn’t want to get wet but enjoys playing in the sand, maybe it’s not the right time yet.
However, one should also bear in mind the personal characteristics, personality and the character of the child. If your child starts crying at first, don’t stop the frustration immediately. A couple of minutes later he/she may realise that he/she is safe and may just shyly start to relax and enjoy the water. But if he/she still doesn’t want to get into the water, you should stop with it and try it later with another approach. Let your child be near other children who are enjoying the water. Watching them playing in the water can make him/her want to be part of it.
Read a story to your child, play dry swimming with him/her. When I read a book to my daughter about a girl who’s won an emblem of a pipefish for learning how to swim, she got very motivated. We were trying to win the emblem at the seaside and in the pool, and in the end, we made it, we won the emblem and a mermaid statuette.
I have to admit that my methods were not fully in line with what I’ve written here. But that was a part of the tailor-made approach. People who happened to observe what I was doing had numerous comments to make. At some point it all looked like a big torture. But she demonstrated a strong will despite the resistance, and I could see that. I want you to leave me on my own but I’m still going to resist it. I didn’t recognise it at first, but once I did, I started behaving in line with that. "Doroteja, now we will dive a bit”, “No, no, don’t do that”, but we still do it and everything is okay. “Now, I will leave you on your own for a bit to swim to the pool’s edge”, “No, no, don’t leave me, I want the swim ring, I want the swim ring (that’s what she calls the Styrofoam noodle) but she is still showing it with her body that she wants to try it. “OK, you swim alone to the pool’s edge, and once you get there, I will give you the swim ring”. She’s crying out as she is getting off me, but she is swimming to the pool’s edge... she needs someone to read her mind, her mum is a psychologist after all. And so on, after feeling a bit frustrated, she would feel the joy for getting a reward – swimming with the noodle.
I wasn’t much better either, and now as I’ve gone through this with my child, I can just congratulate to my parents for their endless patience and understanding, especially in those situations when I was a new and unsuccessful one in the group. But that’s the case whenever you’re acquiring a new skill. It mostly had to be done in my way and when I wanted it, and that’s the way I learnt how to swim, when I took off my armbands and got into the water all on my own. I was about three, and my dad was pretending to be asleep on the beach. Yeah, that’s exactly how it was. I was sure that nobody was looking at me, I decided to swallow my pride, I was spiteful, I have no idea how it looked like back then but there was a lady on the beach who started yelling at my dad thinking that I was drowning. I don’t know what to say about this method from a psychologist’s point of view, but I know that after it I enrolled in a swim school, and a couple of years later there were 33 medals hanging on the wall next to my bed.
There are different fears of water
A child cannot fear the water for different reasons in different ways and in different levels. The fear of the unknown is treated in a completely different way, and you could’ve read about it above. If there is a trauma and already acquired phobia which does not need to be caused by swimming itself, that is another story. For example, if the baby has suffered a trauma while taking a bath, let’s say you were bathing him/her at the point when he/she was feeling strong cramps or he/she got scared of something at one point while having a bath, the two situations become related as they occurred at the same time. The child related the cramps, the tension with the water. Traumatic experiences generalise fear, so it transfers to all similar experiences occurring at the point of the traumatic event.
The fear of drowning can also be related to the earliest period in life. For example, if a child choked on water, etc.
In the situations of intensive fear, it is necessary to work on inverting the situation. As a negative experience became related to water, now it is necessary to get a nice, positive experience to relate to it. It can be music you can play every time you’re near the water. You can try it with the favourite candy, a nice atmosphere, in the company of another child. If your fail, you should see a psychologist.
Coaches have a big role in the life of children
It’s not a big secret that children tend to be more obedient to other adults than their parents. A coach thus becomes an important figure who does not accept the child unconditionally as parents do but has certain expectations. The child gives more effort, but the trust is vital. To build the trust, make the coach or instructor learn about your child’s specificities. What is your child like? How does he/she react in situations which are new to him/her? How does he/she cope with stress? Does he/she like water? Is he/she patient, unruly? Is he/she afraid of something? These are all very important guidelines which help the instructor establish a good relationship with different children.
It is crucial that the coach also builds the trust gradually and is aware of the fact that his role is important. A single wrong move can irrevocably detach the child not only from him but also from swimming.
A skilful coach will define the right measure in juggling between pushing the child into learning and knowing when it is really enough. The support should include both of these and a good survey and learning about the limits and strength of children is the most important point to be worked on.
Be an ally and not an enemy to the swim coach. Remember that your child will observe him the way you do. So, always be on the same side. Let everyone does his or her own work, that’s crucial. If your child is having a swim lesson, you should not be there standing at the pool’s edge, but sitting in a seat, without making any comments.
The coach is more focused on the result, you should be more focused on the emotions and the process itself. How do you feel while you’re swimming? You’ve swam from the one to the other side of the pool? Wow, you must feel great?
And don’t always expect positive emotions. I don’t’ know if you remember yourselves at the time when you were learning a new skill. I remember quite well my first skiing. And trust me, there’re quite a few situations I felt equally horrible. It was so hard! Bruises and pain in the muscles I didn’t even know I had, and tears were the everyday image of me in the first seven days.
I don’t believe it’s much easier for children either, quite the opposite.
Swimming is necessary, as much as walking…
I won’t go now into telling you why swimming is an important skill for your child. What is important for this story is that swimming can be learnt by anyone, it is an extremely healthy sport and you will feel much more relaxed on the beach once your child learns how to swim.
As you are teaching your child how to swim, you will be working on your relationship with your child, on your mutual trust which will be the wind at your back for all other activities in the future.
Now imagine that you’ve tied yourself to your child with an invisible rubber band. Let your child go away as much as he/she can. Step by step. Once you feel it is difficult, let him/her make another step or two and then get him/her back into the safe zone. Let him/her go one step further every next time. Use one of your hands to push him/her forward saying: you can do it! And then use the other hand to get him/her back to you saying a more important thing: everything’s okay. In this way you’re making your child ready for life, teaching him/her the skills which are important, and swimming is one of them.
I could talk for days about choosing swimming as an active sport, about puberty and the pool, competitions, ups and downs from my personal experience. I spent a big part of my childhood in the water… but that’s another story for some other time.
Until then, enjoy swimming with your kids :)