Off the Deep End

I grew up in a water-phobic family. When my mother’s father was nine years old, his only brother drowned in a river at the age of 14. That early trauma led him and his sisters to avoid the water; they didn’t want their own kids to swim in anything more than shallow splash pools.

I didn’t escape the family phobia, but my own dad did manage to temper it a bit by getting me in the water from time to time on family vacations, which I enjoyed — as long as my dad was right there or the water was shallow. Mom tuned out on the beach or poolside with a book, firmly in denial.

When I had my own kids, I wondered how I would break the cycle without suffocating from a panic attack every time I saw my children dip their toes in the water. “Children are very resilient but can also be strongly influenced by the verbal and nonverbal communication and behaviors of adults,” says psychologist Dr. Anne K. Conley-Goldstein, Ph.D. Even if we allow our children in the water, our physical or emotional reactions can inadvertently lead them to fear it as well.

After talking with numerous parents about their water phobias, the prevailing sentiment made by most, including myself, is that we don’t want our children to fear the water like we did. We may not take risks for ourselves, but we will venture out of our comfort zones for the sake of our kids’ safety and enjoyment.

Obviously the best way to relieve worry about your children swimming is to ensure they learn to swim well. But this is easier said than done when you, the parent, have a bona fide, crippling fear of the water. Along with the family stories and my mother’s fears, my water phobia stemmed largely from the unknown and uncontrollable. How could I protect my kids when I couldn’t go into the water? I talked about my fear with other parents who were also fearful about letting their kids swim in the water. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years with my family and in talking with other parents like me:

Acknowledge your fear

Experts say one in ten people suffer from a phobia at some point in life. These are true fears that evoke a severe fight-or-flight response in the body — even when the situation at hand doesn’t warrant such extreme reaction. People who aren’t afraid of the water may scoff at or dismiss your phobia, but it’s important to realize that it’s a very real fear; people do drown in the water. Allow yourself that acknowledgment. Then you can take steps to remain calm, confront the fear, and educate yourself about water safety.

Educate yourself

The best weapon against fear of any kind is education. Learn about swimming; read books and articles and maybe even take your own swimming lessons. By doing so, you can familiarize yourself with what really goes on in the water so that your imagination does not spin wildly out of control when you see your kids dive in. If you can’t bring yourself to learn to swim, attend lessons with your kids. Watch the process. Take the time to ask the instructor questions after class. An experienced swimmer can allay your fears by teaching your children what to do in situations such as suddenly being out of their depth, coping with strong currents, and dealing with friends who are goofing off or in danger while swimming.

Find a good swim teacher

Whether it’s a spouse, good friend, relative, or a certified swim class instructor, find someone you trust to teach your kids to swim. It’s important that whomever you choose respects your fears, knows the ins and outs of water safety, and is able to show both you and your kids that swimming can be fun. That’s what helped me the most with letting my kids in the water: knowing they were aware of the water’s dangers and well trained in what to do.

Be prepared

Some parents choose to dress their children in bright, easily recognizable swim shirts or floats so they can quickly find their kids in the water. One mom I talked to carries a whistle to summon acknowledgements of safety (such as a wave) from her kids, while another one carries a life-saving float she can toss out to her children in case of an emergency. Though she’s never used her float, just knowing she can help out one of her kids in the water if needed eases her anxiety over letting them swim. When my kids were still young, the best way for me to cope with letting them swim was by planting myself in the shallow water, where I could be right there with them, or dangling my feet in the pool. Once my children were venturing into deeper water, I insisted on someone who was a good swimmer being nearby and on having a rescue float at my side.

Push came to shove for my water phobia a few years ago when we moved: the house we wanted to buy came with an in-ground pool. The kids were overjoyed, but I was nearly paralyzed with fear. I realized I needed to come to terms with my kids being in water that was deeper than how tall they were. So I insisted they only swim when I was sitting next to the pool with my rescue float. The kids practiced and showed me each day what strong swimmers they were becoming. It was a tremendous relief to see them master the pool from end to end. Granted, the deepest part of our pool is only five and a half feet, and both kids have since grown close to or past that height, but old habits die hard, especially when it comes to phobias.

While it has been a challenge and remains one at times, I’m glad to say I successfully broke the cycle: my two children, now teenagers, do not share my fears. From personal experience I can tell you it’s possible to at least cope with allowing your kids to swim — even when you haven’t overcome your fear of the water.

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