Category Archives: Fears

Six-year-old hates swimming lessons

Q: My six-year-old usually loves swimming with us, but after two formal lessons, decided he hates it. What should I do?

A: Many children shy away from the unusual sensory experience of swimming pools, particularly when surrounded by, touched by, and dependent on strangers. Since your son normally enjoys unstructured water play when in your presence, the unique environment or structure likely causes his distress. However, the only way to really understand your son’s perspective is to ask him. And the best time to ask him is when you’re alone together after a bonding activity (e.g., reading, laughing, playing).

The key to having a meaningful and effective discussion is to set aside your own agenda in the beginning. Yes, you want your son to overcome his fears, gain confidence, and be safe around water, but presenting your arguments, no matter how valid they are, will likely cause your son to cling more desperately to his own. Instead, empathize with his position (e.g., “It’s kind of strange being almost naked and cold in a loud echo-y place with just a stranger to help you, huh?”) Adults often resist validating children’s fears so explicitly for fear of giving them more weight, but the opposite is true. The fear is there regardless, but when an adult really gets it right, a child is far more likely to give credence to the adult’s view (e.g., “Mom really understands and still thinks I can handle it” as opposed to “Mom thinks I can handle it because she has no clue.”) To further show that fears are normal and acceptable, consider sharing a fear of your own.

When your son feels understood and lets his guard down, you can reiterate his concerns and express yours (e.g., wanting him to feel and be safe in the water, wanting him to prove to himself that he can do it), then ask him for ideas to address both. Think of a few yourself to lead him towards if he has none. For example, if he’s cold when he gets out of the pool, maybe you could toast up a big fluffy towel in the dryer and put it in a plastic bag (to retain heat). If he’s uncomfortable with strangers, maybe you could sit only a few feet away throughout the lesson. If the lesson is too long, maybe you could get him out 5 minutes early (when the time actually comes, he may choose to stay in, but knowing he has the option could make him more at ease). If the experience is just too strange and overwhelming, maybe you could bring him to the same pool and play out a lesson together. If your son proposes a solution that doesn’t address your concerns, you can say, “Hmm. That would help with ___, but can we think of something to help with ___ too?” You may have to address your concerns in baby steps and let go of your vision for how things should unfold.

While some children who are forced screaming into the water develop negative associations for life, others show up laughing and splashing at the very next lesson. In the latter cases, the children did learn to enjoy water and likely to swim, but what else did they learn? What did they learn about their parents’ respect for their feelings? About their ability to overcome challenges on their own? About their unconditional trust in their parents? About how to respond to the fears of others? If you model respect and let your son take the lead, chances are he’ll still learn to swim, but also gain confidence in your relationship, and more importantly, in his own ability to handle life’s challenges.

Six-year-old won’t sleep on her own

Q: Almost every night, my six-year-old daughter either crawls into our bed or one of us lays down beside her until she falls asleep. What can we do to encourage her to sleep on her own?

A: While co-sleeping can be a beautiful experience for many parents, a time usually comes when even the most enthusiastic supporters are ready to reclaim evening and nighttime as their own. Unfortunately, the longer co-sleeping rituals continue, the more difficult it may be for children to view themselves as capable sleepers. Fortunately, it’s never too late to challenge a child’s identity and help her see herself in a new light. The trick is having enough confidence in your child and the process to follow through on your decision. All the pep talk in the world will do little to convince her of her capabilities without experience to back it up.

Before discussing the matter with your daughter, articulate why a change is needed so your confidence comes through in your conversation. First of all, your needs matter too and it’s important to respect yourself enough to honor them. Further, honoring your needs models self-respect for your daughter to emulate and prevents her from viewing her needs as more important than others’ and therefore expecting others to sacrifice theirs for hers. Most importantly, allowing your daughter to experience difficult challenges and overcome them is critical for building resilience and self-confidence.

Once you feel solid in your rationale, sit down with your daughter and discuss the issue. Start by asking her questions about any nighttime concerns. She may list several, but likely, they all stem from the underlying belief that she can’t handle falling asleep on her own. After she feels heard and understood, express your concerns. For example, you may want uninterrupted time in the evening to relax, talk to your spouse, work, or sleep and for her to view herself as a competent sleeper. Then ask her for ideas to address both her concerns and yours. If her suggestions involve interruptions or would prevent her from gaining confidence in (i.e., experience) falling asleep on her own, remind her of your concerns and keep trying until you come up with something that addresses all concerns. Try to let the ideas come from her, but if she struggles, you can ask leading questions to draw forth ideas you think might be effective (establishing a soothing bedtime routine, listening to music, reading books to herself, playing a recording of your voice, using a flashlight or nightlight, setting a picture of the two of you snuggling by the bed or under her pillow, planning a sleep-over with you on the weekend, counting sheep, thinking about fun events from the day, you peeking in on her before getting into your own bed, spending scheduled uninterrupted “special time” together before bed or earlier in the day, etc.) Decide what you will do if she calls out to you (e.g., trust her to handle the problem on her own) or comes to get you (e.g., kindly lead her back to bed without a word, kiss her, and leave) after bedtime. Be sure to explain what you’ll do and why ahead of time so you’re not tempted to explain in the moment (words often ruin the effectiveness of actions by inviting argument and undermining the value of the words already spoken during plan development).

Whatever you decide, remember that she can fall asleep on her own and she’ll learn to if given the opportunity. Because experience is needed for her to believe she’s capable, the first few nights may be rough for everyone (lots of testing will undoubtedly occur if she’s not used to you following through), but your job is not to rescue her from life’s challenges, but to help her view herself as someone who can handle them. Express your faith in her by following through on the plan kindly and firmly.