How to End Swimming Lesson Meltdowns

Expect your toddler to cry at swim lessons. There. Have we set your expectations low enough?

This is a group of people who freak out when their banana is sliced. So, a loud, wet, new environment is certain to cause a meltdown.

“It’s normal. If they don’t cry, it’s almost weirder,” says Jamie Owen, the director of the Davis Aquadarts Racing Team (DART) Swim School in Northern California. Her program teaches children from 18 months to 10 years.

She finishes her thought with, “But, it’s always nice to give them experience in the water; the younger the better.”

Owen recommends that you persist. And she says there are a few things you can do to make the experience easier for your children (and yourself).

Before You Go

Get them used to the water ASAP: Bring them to the pool with you. Take a Mommy and Me class. During bath time, encourage them to dip their face in the water, or splash water in their face. Owen says the biggest fear for kids is getting water on their face. So, get them used to it at home, or another familiar environment first.

(Hmmm… what if someone would invent a cute, safe, fun floatie that babies could use as early as 8 weeks? That way, babies could get used to the water at a very early age, making the transition to swim lessons an easy one! Oh, yeah. We’re already on that. The Otteroo will teach your baby that water time is fun time.)

Talk to them: Let kids know what to expect at swim lessons. Don’t take it for granted that your child knows what swim lessons are going to entail. Explain to them that you’ll be walking away from the pool, what activities they may do, and how long the lesson will last. “Kids always do better when they know what’s going to happen,” says Owen, “Some parents surprise their kids, and that’s never helpful.”

Once You Get There

Get there early and take it slow: Owen recommends explaining the surroundings to your child. Introduce them to their coaches and ease them into it. “We try to get to know the kids, let them sit on the side, and it’s an easing-into the pool,” she says. “Slow, but steady encouragement.”

Smile and distance yourself: “If the kid can see you, smile, wave, look happy. That usually makes them feel a little bit more comfortable,” Owen says. “As you’re leaving (the pool area) tell your child, ‘I’ll see you in 30 minutes, I know you’re going to have fun,’ and walk away.” She says it’s easier for her coaches when parents aren’t lingering by the pool. “Toddlers are really easy to distract,” says Owen, “that’s what I teach my coaches. If we can get the parents away, we can distract them with toys and other things.”

Reassure: Use positive reinforcement to remind your child why you’re there. Owen says, too often, parents do the opposite. “When kids start crying, parents say, ‘Are you afraid of the water? Are you scared that it’s going to be cold?’ Kids are automatically going to say yes,” points out Owen. “You’re just giving them reasons to not want to be in the water.”

After Lessons

Reinforce: During bath time, practice some of the same exercises your child is learning at swim lessons. Encourage your child to blow bubbles in the water, and splash water in his or her face.

Encourage: When your child is fighting swim lessons, remind them why they’re so important. “I preach that swimming is a life skill so it’s really important to be able to swim so that you can go to parties, go to the ocean, anything that kids would like, it’s really good to encourage that,” Owen says, “Some parents who don’t know how to swim can say, ‘I didn’t get to swim when I was little, now you get to do this. You’ll get to teach me how to swim.’”

Evaluate: Owen recommends that you continue with swim lessons, but if at some point your child doesn’t stop fighting it, she thinks it is okay to take a break. “My one fear is making kids hate the water completely,” Owen says, “Some kids are just not ready to be without their parents, so maybe I’d recommend a mommy and me class first to ease them in.” Try again the following year when your child is more mature and more comfortable in the water.

Julie Forbes

Julie Forbes

Julie Kroenig Forbes graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She spent the next 10 years working as a news anchor and reporter in various cities, most recently in Nashville, Tennessee. She now lives in Northern California with her husband and four kids.
Julie Forbes