My 5 yr old refuses to learn to swim! - FamilyEducation
My 5 yr old refuses to learn to swim!
07/30/2008 at 18:35 PM

Hi all. Facing another challenge w/ my 5 yr old. We recently signed our boys up for swim lessons. This is their 1st real lesson. They both love the water, but unfortunately we do not have a large pool for them to swim in. We do have a blow up kiddie pool that the boys can sit and splash in, however. Neither of our boys were ever afraid of the water. As babies, they loved bathtime, and still do. They've both even experienced swimming in an inground pool a few times, however, they've always used swimmies or a vest to help them float. W/ swim lessons, though, any floating device is a no no. My youngest son is 3 1/2, and he's doing great! He was a bit timid at first, but now he'll attempt to swim on his own w/ no problem. My oldest son is the opposite. He's so nervous to let go of the instructor, and even when she reassures him that he'll be fine, he refuses to try. At his last lesson, he used the excuse of having to go to the bathrm. Then when he got back in the pool and was asked to swim to the ladder only a short distance away, he refused. Finally, he started to cry, and I felt heartbroken. I thought my kids wld find the whole experience fun, but my 5 yr old wants no part of it. He's been invited to friends' houses to swim, but he won't leave the edge of the pool. I feel helpless b/c I want my son to learn how to swim, especially for safety reasons. I'm also kicking myself for not exposing him to the water sooner. Maybe, starting as a baby, he wld've adjusted to the whole idea easier. How can I help my son overcome his fear of swimming? Shld I continue to expose him to the water, or shld I hold off, and see what happens as he gets older? Sometimes I think the more exposure the better, but I don't want to terrify the kid to the pt where he now hates the water altogether. My son has some learning difficulties, but this is nothing that anyone in his same situation cldn't conquer. The lessons are also 1-on-1, so they're not cheap. Is it worth sticking it out, and spending all this $$, if our son's not going to swim? Please help w/ any advice or suggestions you may have. Thanks sooo much!!!!!

My kids took lessons from a private instructor at her home pool. I do think that was the way to go, especially for my fearful kids.

I recall, however, that this instructor would allow the beginner kids to wear the arm floats while they worked on what she wanted them to work on. Then, during the same lesson she had them remove the floats and do the same exercise without them on.

My oldest had 1-on-1 lessons, but I just remembered that with my younger two, we had them have their lessons together, because they were both a little nervous and felt more comfortable with sibling by their side. Seemed to work out.

Is this instructor experienced with fearful kids? I would talk to the instructor and see what kind of plan s/he has. You can then get a feel for how this instructor approaches fearful kids. Hopefully, then, your gut will tell you if you should continue with the lessons.

I do think the right swim teacher can make all the difference for those kids who have fear. The lady we had was an older but dynamic teacher. She was gentle, calm and encouraging. For my kids, she was just right. And she was flexible--she would work at their pace. Sometimes it took a long time to work on just one thing, but that was ok. Ok with her, ok with me.

Just my experience, fwiw. Good luck coming to a decision! Sometimes it's hard watching our kids struggle with things, isn't it? We parents suffer through it, too, don't we...


Maybe the starting age for lessons can make a difference, but I feel like the child's own nature is a bigger factor in how they will react.

I know my 2 were/are just more timid about a lot of things compared to my oldest. At any rate, don't kick yourself for not starting earlier. You're starting him now, and that's great! The two that I am talking about were not that young either, in fact I think my dd was 6 and her brother was 3 at the time. And it worked out fine! So I'm not gonna kick myself, so don't you neither! ;oD

Another thought I had was for you to keep yourself in check and make sure you act calm and relaxed (not anxious) at the poolside while he is having lessons, and try to convey an encouraging and positive attitude towards your fearful son. You probably already are doing this, but just to emphasize it, because I think kids pick up on our anxieties.

Another idea: Maybe you can do the 'ol stickers on the calendar thing, where he gets to put a sticker on when he accomplishes a skill. ("Yay, you get a sticker swam to the ladder!")--something like that.

Last thought. Have you talked to him about his fear, and what he is specifically afraid of? Is he afraid of opening his eyes underwater, or of going down and not being able to come up, or ?---My thinking is that if he can give you more specifics about his fears, maybe you and the instructor can address it in a more exact way to reassure him.

Good luck with this!


pokey, I really appreciate your reply. Yes, it is tough watching your own kids struggle. I shld've mentioned that w/ the first 2 lessons my sons used a noodle (those long foam tubes) to help hold themselves up. After that, though, the instructor had them trying things on their own. Their instructor is young, and she is very sweet. She works for The Red Cross, and she cldn't be any more wonderful or patient. My boys love her, and my younger son is doing quite well w/ her. I can't help thinking that if I exposed my older son to swimming lessons sooner, he'd be less fearful. Do you think age makes a difference? How old were your children when they began lessons? I think I might try putting my kids in classes together. Like you said, it might help my older son feel more comfortable. I'll also talk to their instructor about her experience w/ fearful kids and see what she suggests. From what I've heard, these instructors have experience w/ special needs children, and the fact that they offer 1-on-1 classes, was our reason for choosing them. We have 2 more lessons left before we can decide whether to continue or not. So frustrating....

Thx, pokey. I do think my son is a bit more anxious than most when it comes to such things. I try to stay as calm and positive as possible while he's in the water. I even tried to get him to swim to me this wk as I knelt by the ladder w/ my arms out. The only thing that got him to swim there, was the promise that he cld get out if he does. Each lesson is only a 1/2 an hr long, which unfortunately doesn't give my son much time to warm up. It seems like he does this in other situations as well. For expl, we put our son in a social group to help him enhance his social skills. The group ran for 6 wks, and it wasn't until the 4th or 5th wk that he started coming out of his shell. His problem is w/ speech and language. When I ask my son why he's afraid to swim, he doesn't tell me. He always seems eager to go to his lesson, but once he is asked to swim, he gets scared. I've tried practicing w/ him holding his breath, blowing bubbles, and putting his head under the water. From what I can tell, I think it's the under the water part that scares him most. If he can just get passed that fear, I think he'll be ok. He doesn't seem to understand or want to understand that if he pushes off the edge of the pool and kicks his feet and moves his arms the way the instructor showed him, he will get to the ladder or her much quicker. Maybe he needs to feel more comfortable w/ those things first before he can attempt to swim. It just seems that he's so overcome w/ fear, that those other things just go out the window when he does try. As for opening his eyes under water, the instructor suggested goggles which he wore this wk. They are shaped like sharks, and he loves wearing them, but still they didn't make a difference in getting him to swim. I've even tried bribing my son w/ ice cream, which I know he loves. He gets excited over the whole idea, but then chickens out when it comes to swimming. Thanks again for all your suggestions. I'll definitely consider everthing you mentioned, and also see what the instructor says. Hopefully in time my son will be as eager to swim as his younger brother.

just pray to god that he will see you throught

My first son is like that. He's 9 now, and we finally moved past the "I can't put my head under water" stage. He also has language/social/learning struggles. I started him at about 2 yrs in swimming lessons, but it was horrible -- he cried the whole time because he was too cold. My daughter is 5 now and learned how to swim to me under water all by herself. Now she's working on swimming heads up, and I'm sure she'll get it, all by herself! My son is very thin, and this makes him sink rather than float -- most people float, but not my husband and son. He also has muscle problems that make it harder for him to kick hard and fast enough to keep himself up. So for now, we work on kicking with the flutter board, putting his head under water, and in the deep water he wears a life vest and stays by the wall (it was difficult for him when I pulled him off the wall, with life vest on, and made him "swim" back to the side!). My advice: be patient, keep working on it. Give him time, try to get him to talk about his problems so you can help him solve them, but don't rush him and make it terrible. Maybe in terms of expensive lessons it would make more sense to have an occasional lesson, then practice with him on the things the instructor was trying to teach until he masters them with you, then go back for another lesson. All the best!

RebeccaJZ, Thank you. I feel I have someone to relate to and that I'm not in this alone. I'll do what you suggested and be patient. Even though our pool at home is very small, the kids can lie down in it, so I have them practice their arm strokes and kicking. I also splash water in their faces which neither or them seem to object to, just to get them used to the idea. Yesterday, when giving the kids a bath, I decided to try a shower to see what they'd do. They were both a little freaked at first, especially my older son. But when I went in there w/ them (we all had our bathing suits on--I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea), I had them go under the shower as they wld a sprinkler. It seemed to be less scary for them w/ me there. Both my boys like the sprinkler, but w/ that it's different b/c it's not a steady powerful stream of water. It moves, and it's less water pressure on them. It's also in our yard and a lot less confined then a shower. But all in all, it went well. Maybe w/ me in the big pool, my older son will be a bit more comfortable. What do you think?

Update.... My sons' regular swim instructor was out this wk, so we had another instructor do their lesson. I was a little leary about the idea at first as I thought starting w/ a new instructor wld take warming up time all over again and make my older son more nervous. However, this guy was great. Like the other instructor, he's really nice and patient, but he also didn't push my son as much. This is exactly what my son needed! The instructor also thought it was a great idea to put both my kids in the water at the same time. We tried it, and I think it made my older son more comfortable having his brother w/ him. I was really pleased w/ how involved the instructor was w/ my kids, and how he made the lesson fun. He threw them up in the air, gave them piggy back rides and took my son's mind off his fear. If my older guy wanted to get out of the pool, the instructor let him. Then he wld encourage him to get back in the pool w/ his brother, which my son didn't object to. I finally feel like my son is coming around in his own way. As long as he doesn't feel pressured and he's allowed to go at his own pace, the experience is much more positive. I want to thank everyone again for all your advice and support!

As a former swim instructor, lifeguard and present mother of 3, you can imagine my dismay when my son, at 5, refused to leave the steps of our pool and wouldn't go in without floaties. I would try different things to encourage him -- nothing helped. I think my two daughters have gills. Guess what I did -- nothing. He wasn't ready. He didn't want to try, he just wanted to be left to play as he was. So he did. That was last summer. This summer, he started by, on his own, removing his floaties (which by the way, my husband gave him and I would have never normally allowed, but each child is very different and it made him feel safe). Anyway, he removed his floaties, tried putting his face in the water, and after praising him each minor step of the way, he now jumps off the diving board - no one catching him, and swims like he never had an ounce of hesitation. My advice, let him go. Eat the money you spent on lessons and let him "feel out" swimming in his time. He may surprise you!

trabitz, Thank you! It's nice to hear a professional's perspective on this. It gives me hope for my son's future.