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Teaching a sensitive child to swim

A few days ago I was discussing the topic of swimming lessons with a group of other moms of highly sensitive kids. I found it extremely interesting that, although all our kids are highly sensitive and share a large number of traits, and although they might react the same way to certain situations, the way they are successfully dealt with can vary enormously. One thing will work magic on one child and mean absolutely nothing to another.

One very common factor that was discussed was a fear of water. Most highly sensitive kids are afraid to go under water or even get water in their ears, eyes and nose, which is perfectly understandable. Sensitive kids are naturally cautious, which of course can lead to a fear of drowning. And the fact that they are more sensory than less sensitive kids would explain why it can be so uncomfortable or even painful to get water into those orifices. So one can only expect to face some kind of resistance from a child being taught how to swim. We knew we were in for a challenge when we signed Luca up for lessons, but we didn’t know just how bad it would get.

In March we moved to a compound with a very accessible pool right there in the middle, and even though we knew it wouldn’t be an easy task, we thought it necessary to teach Luca to swim immediately. The private instructor we found was actually quite sensitive to our little boy’s needs and took it very easy with him. He would also very calmly put up with his tantrums for an hour at a time, which I can’t even do sometimes. He made it fun for him, using toys and playing games, and he didn’t really make it feel like a lesson, at least that’s the way it seemed to me. And even though some sessions would go amazingly well with Luca cooperating and actually having a great time, most of the time it was just awful. He would kick and scream and cry during the entire hour! The instructor was very persistent and always thought he could get through to him, but I knew that if the lesson started out with kicks and screams, there was no way we could pull him out of that mood.

We started making some changes to try and find a formula that worked. We asked the instructor to come earlier to try and have a fresher, less cranky Luca to work with. We made sure he had a snack before his lesson because hunger is sometimes an underlying cause for his bad moods. We moved the lessons from the middle of the week to the weekend so that daddy could also be around. We tried having them once a week instead of twice. We tried being in the pool with him, and we tried watching from a distance. Nothing worked.

Finally one day we decided to set up an incentive scheme. Those always worked miracles for me at work when I had to meet a steep sales or distribution target. So naturally I thought, if I can get a team of grownup men to work harder to meet to a difficult objective, there was no way I could fail with a 4-year-old, given I chose the right incentive! So we explained to him that if he had a good lesson and did what the instructor told him to do, we would take him to the toy store and he could choose anything he wanted. Anything! That’s quite an incentive isn’t it? The two lessons that came after that were absolutely perfect! I mean really, an absolute dream come true! I kept a distance because he seemed to be doing so much better on his own, and I could see him smile and hear him laugh with the instructor. He agreed to take off the armbands and do everything he was told. My husband and I were thrilled! After each lesson, we went to the nearest toy store where he proudly chose his well deserved prize.

But then the third lesson post-incentive came, and as usual, we had been preparing him for it by talking to him about it a couple days in advance, but to our surprise, half an hour before the start of the lesson, he ran to his room, started screaming, and just refused to get out. Nothing we said or did could get him out! And how do you explain that to the swimming instructor after he’d made the trip over? The guy was nice enough about it, but we were just devastated, and after two successful lessons, feelings of hopelessness started to creep up on us once again. We pulled ourselves together though, and we convinced ourselves that Luca was just having a bad day, which happens to the best of us.

Lesson number 4 post-incentive came the week after. We put in an extra effort to prepare Luca for it by talking to him about it all week, and telling him how proud we were of him, and reminding him of the gift he’d get if he did well, and of the awesome gifts he’d gotten after he had done so well in the pool. And although he seemed ready for this lesson, he did the same thing as he did the week prior. He ran to his room and cried with all his might and just refused to get out. The instructor was waiting at our doorstep and our son wouldn’t budge. I just lost it at this point. I’m ashamed of how I reacted, but I just lost it, partly because I was frustrated, hopeless, and most of all disappointed, and partly because of all the money we were throwing away on these very expensive private lessons. After a failed attempt of trying to reason with him, against my instinct and all my better judgment, I threatened to take away the toys he’d earned, the toys he loves, the toys he had chosen. I felt horrible the moment those ugly words made their way out of my mouth, and the only thing that made me feel worse was what he said to me after that. He suddenly stopped crying, looked at me and said: “Okay mommy.”

That’s when it hit me. He just wasn’t ready for this. Even though he has made an effort and had a few successful lessons, he still wasn’t ready. At that point, desperate to get himself out of a swimming lesson, he was willing to give up his beloved toys. That’s serious. What’s worse is that our constant pushing made him hate the pool when he actually used to love swimming around with his armbands on, by himself, without the pressure of being told what to do. He now refused to get in, even when he didn’t have a lesson.

So that was it. We decided to put the lessons on hold for the time being. We also explained to Luca that he wouldn’t have anymore lessons for now. And just like that, he started asking to go swimming again. Now he gets in the pool at least 3 times a week. He splashes and floats around with his armbands on. He still refuses to get his face in the water, but he does blow bubbles the way the instructor had taught him. He actually practices a lot of the things the instructor had taught him, when he’s alone, calm and happy. There are a lot of things he still refuses to do, but at least he has fun now, like he used before we signed him up for these lessons.

The downside of all this though is that I am always worried sick that he might fall into the pool when I wasn’t looking. So now when I’m busy with the cooking, cleaning, the baby, or whatever seems to keep me busy all the time, and he wants to go outside, we have to fight about him waiting for me to finish. I have to lock the door and put the chain on because he has opened the door and walked out without telling me. It’s scary, and I don’t especially like the way things turned out, but there’s just no point in forcing him to take swimming lessons if they’re just going to make us all miserable. And like I said earlier, there is no specific way to go about this. Some moms swear by private lessons, others by group lessons. Some say that goggles, nose plugs and ear plugs did the trick, while others say their kids absolutely refused to put them on. Some started early, others way later. Every child is different, and we can’t expect any one teaching method to work on all of them. A friend of mine shared an inspirational video with me that instantly brought tears to my eyes. This video illustrates that different people have different needs and require different teaching methods, and that with the proper method and the right amount of hard work, dedication and passion, people can be taught to shine in ways they were never expected to! You might also find this article helpful; in it, the writer gives some useful tips in teaching a sensitive child to swim, drive, or anything at all really.

The last time Luca and I went for a swim, I casually taught him the doggy paddle. He’s been kicking beautifully but still hasn’t used his arms to help him go forward. So I showed him how it’s done, and then doggy-paddled away from him, joking that he couldn’t catch me. To my surprise, he doggy paddled circles around me! He did end up catching me, several times. And about ten laps later, we were both completely out of breath and very, very happy!

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