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Six-Year-Old Refuses to Swim

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My six year-old daughter takes swimming lessons once a week with her YMCA Kindergarten Club class. They have an instructor who my daughter seems to like, but my daughter screams and refuses to try to learn to swim. (I am not there since I am at work, but her teacher and my daughter herself tell me this.) She does go in the water during "free swim" when she can just stay in the shallow end and not get her face wet.

She agreed with me to try to swim with the instructor and I believe she did try a few weeks ago, but again, yesterday, she refused to go in. She said she was told to sit out and she told me she did and was happy to see everyone having fun swimming. It does not seem to bother her that she is not able to join her friends who are swimming. I told her I was a little upset because she had told me she would try and also because I knew she could do better. It bothered me that she was giving up so easily. I told her I am very proud of her and her many accomplishments and that I guess she would have to try again when she felt she was ready. I don't want to undermine her confidence or her ability to make her own decisions, but is there any way I can encourage her to try and discourage her from giving up? I don't want her to give up on things just because they are "hard" and need to be worked on. Thank you for any feedback you can give me.

A: Being frightened of the steps it takes to learn to swim is quite normal. Sometimes learning to swim in a pond or lake (or a pool you can wade into as opposed to jump into) is an easier proposition. Kids like knowing they can stand up at any time in shallow water and feel the sand under their feet.

She’s not giving up; she’s doing as much as she can or wants to do emotionally and physically. Please don’t make her feel she’s letting you down. Let her dictate her own comfort level. Screaming when asked to do something in the water, however, is inappropriate behavior and indicates this class is not for her. If she can politely decline participating in some of the class activities and still benefit from other class instruction, I would allow her to continue in this particular class. Perhaps you could give her the option of just watching her friends take the class until she’s ready to take a formal class. The instructor may rightly feel another child may benefit more from taking this class than your daughter.

This is an emotional issue with your daughter, not an issue of trying harder. Perhaps a more creative instructor could individualize her instruction, working with your daughter’s strengths as well as her fears. One-on-one instruction for a little while may also be what’s needed to get over that initial hump. Take your cues from your daughter, giving her encouragement for any options she chooses and any progress she makes.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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