Whether it’s on the beach or at the pool, many kids spend time engaged in water activities over their summer break. For most children, this is cause for celebration. But for some, these activities can cause a lot of anxiety. A fear of water can develop for many reasons, including:

  • A naturally anxious temperament
  • Seeing parents or friends who are afraid of water
  • A bad experience
  • Exposure to news of events like shark attacks or other children drowning

It is important to foster a healthy sense of respect and regard for water in your child, as there can be some risk of injury or death to children around water.  How do parents do this without creating fear in their children that prevents them from enjoying water sports and other activities? And, how can parents help a child who is afraid of the water?

First of all, it is important to talk to kids about how water can, and should be, a lot of fun, but that it can also be dangerous if kids don’t follow basic rules. Have a family meeting about rules around the water. Rules can include: always letting an adult know when you are going in the water and checking in when you get out of the water. You should emphasize that the pool rules (no running, no diving, etc.) should always be followed or the child must leave the pool immediately. For parents, make sure your kids are properly supervised to their level of ability in the water. Even with all these rules, it is important to convey to your children that they can have fun and be safe around the water.

If you have a child who is scared of water, don’t belittle them or tell them “not to worry.” Ask them what they are afraid of and let them know their feelings are okay.  It can be helpful to teach kids that their fear levels sometimes get out of whack, like a smoke alarm. If their fear (or what I call a “danger detector”) is set to go off too easily, they may miss out on some things that are actually safe and fun. This can happen with a fear of water. Let your child know that as a team, you can reset their danger detector.

To do this, encourage your child to get used to the water gradually and together. For instance, start with putting toes in. Praise them for trying! Next, put feet in, and so on. Keep praising, reassuring, and helping your child calm his or her fears through breathing or distraction. Sometimes it helps to remind them that the scary feelings, such as their heart beating fast or butterflies in their stomach, is just their danger detector going off and they have to use their brain to remind their body that it is okay! Tell them what a great job they are doing. Little by little, they may be able to work through their fear. If you need to use rewards, that can work too. For example, if they can stand in knee-deep water in the pool for a minute, they can get a nickel, or be allowed to play a favorite game for five minutes.

If your own efforts are not working and the child’s fear of water is getting in the way of family fun, a psychologist with expertise in treating specific phobias may be able to help.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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