15 answers

5 Year Old Refusing Swimming Lessons

My daughter just started a new swimming lesson session and is freaking out. She has gong to swimming lessons before and has been excited about them and joined in the class. But, the last session, one of the swim teachers 'let her go' when she was in the deep water. (these are her words--I watched the entire time and she was never in danger) So, now she doesn't want to go because her swim teacher is a male (he is a new teacher and she hasn't had him before) She has had male teachers before and has not had any problems with them but that is the only thing she can tell me that

She is fine before we go but once we get there she starts screaming and crying about how scared she is. She wouldn't get in the water for 20 minutes ( of a 45-minute class) I tried calmly reasoning with her and even bribing her but nothing works. Once she gets in, she won't participate in the class and just sits on the step. Once the class is finishing up, she starts bopping around in the water and I have a hard time getting her out of there. I think the swim teacher doesn't know what to do with her without disrupting the class for the other kids.

I know her fears are real to her but I feel that learning to swim is very important. She has enjoyed the other classes she is in but has always insisted she be held when she can't touch.

Does anyone have any ideas of how I can minimize the drama and encourage her to participate in the swim class? I think once she starts to participate she will be fine, but my heart is breaking when I see her not participating. She has really turned a corner and started enjoying the water this summer and I'd hate to see her develop a more intense fear of water when I was seeing her start to have fun.

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What can I do next?

So What Happened?™

Well, we went back to swimming lessons today (the third lesson) I figured this was our last chance and if it didn't work out, we would be done. We had talked about how important it was and how everything would be OK. I also promised a treat if she tried her best. Well, she was a little timid as she got in and said she was nervous but after about 5 minutes had probably put her whole head under water a few times and had a big smile on her face and kept giving me the thumbs up sign. The people around us couldn't believe it was the same little girl as last week. Afterwards, she said that was the most fun she had ever had in the water and couldn't wait to go again later this week. So, in this case, I think it just took some encouraging but it seems like she is on the right track.

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Another child we know who was 4 last year was freaking out at swimming lessons last summer (happened to be in the same class with my son). After 3 sessions they got a refund and let it drop. Saw her at the pool recently - swimming like a fish now, a year later. I would drop the class and try again later. Or see if they can put her in another class with another instructor (they tried that with the child I mentioned last summer, but that didn't help.)

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Just a quick note from a parent who has been frustrated by other kids having the fit at swim class.

Several times over the years we have encounted kids who refuse to get in the water for swim class, and the teacher spends 15 minutes trying to convince the child to join the class. The other kids sit there waiting, and we hardly get a decent class out of it.

If your child is not comfortable with it, please don't sign them up for group lessons. If you can afford private lessons, great, otherwise do the basics yourself. You know what they are teaching the beginners.

To convince her, how about restricting her recreational swimming? "You don't know how to swim yet" so she doesn't get to go in the water. If she's not comfortable in the water, she shouldn't be in it. No young kids should be playing in water where they can't touch the bottom, but at this age she should be swimming around under shallower water.

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Hi D.,

My 11 y.o. daughter didn't learn to swim until she was 8 after group lessons at five places since the age of four! I tried group, semi-private, and even private! What finally did it was a snorkling trip. After putting her face in the water with a snorkle mask, she was ready to hold her breath and add that to her dog paddling! Go figure.

Now my 4 y.o. son has had trouble feeling comfortable in group lessons since age 3 so we started with private ones. I think the only difference between him and the other kids is that, perhaps, I hadn't taken him to enough recreational swim time. Both of my kids are also pretty sensitive.

Our society is so focused on early mastery these days, without respect for kids and their needs. Whether it is readiness or a bad water experience, a young kid needs to feel secure in the water and lots of pools don't have a really shallow area for them. So they need to learn to play and love the water with someone they trust: you (or a trusted family member or friend)!

There are so many things we can do as parents that we don't try. I watch the swim teachers and the early stuff is not rocket science. You can do so much yourself and when your child is ready, then pass them on to the pro.

Your child and her fears are normal! Just build new and positive experiences this summer. Good luck.


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If she is afraid, please don't push it. To a child, that must be horrifying. Respect and honor her feelings right now, and she will eventually change her mind. To push her to swim now when she is so intensely afraid and this is so new in her mind is not productive at all.

I agree that she should not participate in the group class anymore, either. She is going to hold up the progress of the others and cause frustration. I think private lessons, if possible, are an option. But not until her fears subside a bit. This is something that could affect her for life if she is pushed through it. But if she is given control over when she gets in the water next, she will probably not even remember the incident in a year.

What Barbara says above is SO true. What is the rush?

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Another child we know who was 4 last year was freaking out at swimming lessons last summer (happened to be in the same class with my son). After 3 sessions they got a refund and let it drop. Saw her at the pool recently - swimming like a fish now, a year later. I would drop the class and try again later. Or see if they can put her in another class with another instructor (they tried that with the child I mentioned last summer, but that didn't help.)

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My youngest did something similar. I finally took her out of the class and told her that she didn't have to go. However, she couldn't get her feet wet beyond her toes and she had to wear her swim vest and having an adult hold her if she went into the water. The next summer, we went to Boston. While there, she went to the beach with her uncle and some adult cousins as well as some other kids who knew how to swim. I instructed everyone on the rules and they enforced them. I had to go to the airport, on my return, she ran up and told me that she really, really wanted to take swim classes. Not being able to go into the water without having some one holding her really motivated her! She's now been taking swim classes for two summers and loves it!

She also pulled similar stunts in dance and gymnastics. I did the same thing. For both things, she eventually decided that she did want to do them and has been reenrolled very successfully. The key was her wanting to do it!

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Maybe you could ask the swim teacher to talk to her independantly and say something like, I know you got scared when I was trying to let you swim by yourself and you probably weren't ready for that so, we will take it a little slower. You can go at you own pace and join in when you feel like you are brave enough. Just ask him to keep it positive and not pressured. If you don't feel comfortable asking the swim teacher than you could use the same words and tell the swim teacher that she needs a little more encouragement and to go a little slower with her. It's about having a fun experience and if she doesn't come around than I would drop the class and work with her independantly during open swim times. Good luck


Would private (one on one) swim lessons be an option? When I was little, I had a scary swim lesson experience and didn't want to go back. My parents took me to a private class one summer and that helped a lot.

Others have mentioend private lessons and that may be the way to go if you can. When I was about 8, my sister taught me how to swim.. I had just gotten the hang of actually swimming, head side to side, etc. A "friend" pushed into the water before I was even ready to get in. I thought I was going to drown. Under water you get very disoriented. No signs of direction or anything. I can imagine how your daughter felt. If this is possible, why don't you go into the water yourself? If you can get her comfortable enough to be in the water with you, she may be more open to lessons again.

I would back off for awhile. The fear of the water is huge and you can't really change that, she has to change. All you will get out of this is frustration, your frustration, her frustration and the frustration from the other parents in the class.

I had my older kids start lessons when they were around 3 and we went through this phase with each one of them. I would just take a break for awhile, talk to them about it occasionally and then when they were ready move on. I did switch to the private lessons with one child and that helped.

Then I kind of slacked with my youngest and he just started lessons this year and he loves them!

Don't turn it into a battle. It's supposed to be fun. She's not going to quit forever, just give her a break. It will happen.

My 5 year old loves the water too, and is highly motivated to learn to swim, but is terrified of getting her face and head wet!! We've done several group classes and she actually did ok, because they used floatation devices. But now she's at the level where she'll need to put her head in the water and blow bubbles, etc, and I know it will be a struggle. I decided she would need private lessons, and that seems to have done the trick. We're at our YMCA, but if you want, email me, and I'll give you a list of instructors that I got when I posted desperately on Facebook!! BTW, the fact that she loves playing in the water bodes well for her success...

We struggled with a similar issue last summer, but part of it was that my son doesn't like change and they switched his teacher mid-session.

If she is truly afraid, I would give advice similar to those below, but don't give up-- just give it time. In my son's case, I think there was some fear, but more dislike. I told him he has to keep taking swim lessons until he can swim. (I grew up on a lake, so my Mom had an even tougher stance...)

Hi D.,
My daughter also had a hard time with swim lessons at that age. She was terrified of the "big pool" where she couldn't touch and did not want her face getting wet. We had trouble with swim lessons at first too. I talked to the instructor and said that as long as she was in the water doing something, that was fine with us. That ended the "letting go" by the instructor & the instructor was also relieved. She said most parents are upset if their child does not move on to the next level & has to repeat a class so that is why instructors push them to do things they aren't ready for such as "letting them go" so they go underwater. She said that terrifies some children but others get used to it & are OK with it. So it probably depends on your child but when I gave the instructor the OK to work at my daughter's pace, things were much improved. She did spend the entire first session only floating on her back because she did not want her face wet, but by the second session she was more confident, was lucky enough to get the same instructor and then started putting her face in when she was ready. It is hard because you hate to see your child scared & they don't understand the importance of learning to swim at that age. From my experience it seems that letting the child get comfortable in the water & doing things as they feel confident works well. GOOD LUCK!!

Like the others I suggest you back off and drop the class. I wouldn't punish her for this but of course she won't have the same freedom at the beach and pool as a kid that can swim so you can use that to keep motivating her. The fear of water is primal and deep seated for some and usually not something that a child can be persuaded out of. Swimming has to be her idea. This is a work in progress....she will learn to swim but maybe not on your schedule.

I also second the comments of the responder who suggested out of consideration for the others in the class that you drop out. I have been in that situation as well and its not fair to the other kids in the class. Good luck!


The only thing I can remember from my own swimming lessons is the time the teachers made me jump into the deep end and they had to fish me out. They might have said I was never in danger, but it scared the hell out of me. I eventually learned how to swim from a friend.

I don't think you can just get rid of her fear. If it were me (and I haven't even gotten my 5 yo to agree to swimming lessons yet, but your experience is helping me think how to go about it), I would let her enter the water and the class on her own terms. Then, in the future, interview swimming teachers in advance and tell them your daughter's fears, maybe let her meet them as well, until you find someone who you both feel comfortable with and will respect your daughter's fears.

I am glad that you've resolved this issue by now, but I'm hoping that the following info might still be helpful...


Best wishes,

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