What to do if a child is crying

At swim lessons and a child starts crying. What do you do?

As a parent there is a long list of things you should do to help your crying child and the swim program that you’re at. We are going to first go through what a parent should do to keep their child from crying or reduce the tear time to a minimum. Swim instructors and program directors can use this information to educate and inform the parents that come to your swim lessons.

To prevent children crying at swim lessons:

  • Mentally prepare your child for the swimming experience.

When you sign up for swim lessons inform your child that they will be participating in swim lessons. Let them know in clear terms that they will be at class once a week for 30 minutes, and that they will learn how to go underwater like you do in the bathtub or shower, and will practice moving through the water safely. A good idea would be to take your child to the pool that they will be swimming at before the lesson to introduce them to the environment. Even better would be to swim there together and play games and have fun before your lessons. This is all a part of giving your child a clear expectation of what lessons will be like, where they will be, and creating a familiar environment for them to be comfortable in when they start.  Remind your child that there will be other people in the class with them and that a swim instructor who is training in teaching swimming will help them learn how to swim and keep them safe.

  • Sing the songs from swim lessons, and use the same swim specific location language

If you can, get a hold of the swim lesson program’s song sheets or training guide to learn the swim skill language they use at that location. When you are at home, in the car, or playing outside sing those same songs and try to use similar descriptive language to talk about swimming. When the child then goes into their swim lesson they’ll already have a positive version of the experience with the parent established in their mind and won’t be overly surprised by something different or new.

  • Visit the pool before swim lessons

Do everything you can to spend some time together at the swimming pool or location that you will have your swim lessons. The best idea is to get in the water with your child and walk them through getting in the water from the side with assistance and blowing bubbles. Play games together and do your best to laugh, have fun, and be positive. We want to create a positive association with the location and the pool so when your child does come to swim lessons they already have a positive and happy association with the location. Beyond reacting to tears this one thing will require a little bit of your free time and prevent the majority of children from crying.

  • Constantly offer support and encouragement in the days before the lessons, immediately before the class at the pool, and after a lesson.

Parents are the choreographers of their children’s emotional state. You should present a positive welcoming and happy outward demeanor when you are describing swimming and swim lessons. Tell your child how much fun they are going to have at the pool. Remind them about the fun things that you did together at the pool when you went swimming before the lessons. Your goal should be to boost their confidence and load them with positivity and excitement for the coming lesson where they will learn new and wonderful things in the water.  Do your best to lace your language with positive words and actions. Give hugs, kisses, encouragement, and present a reassuring confident body language to convey confidence and certainty to your child.

How to handle children at swim lessons that start crying with their parents:

Sometimes the parent has done all the preventative steps to keeping their child from crying. Sometimes that child is too scared to remember their positive associations, or maybe they’re too scared by something else. Once those tears start flowing our immediate reaction is to acquiesce to the salty drops and allow all sorts of terrible accommodations to that crying child.  Instead encourage and follow these cry curing tips to lead a quite and joyful observation area for the parents void of screeching frightened screams and tears.

  • Parents: acknowledge you child’s fear, but don’t suggest WHY they are afraid.

We never want to give the child a reason to be scared. Avoid phrases like, “Are you scared because the water is cold?” or “Are you crying because you’re scared of the teacher?” When you as parent give the swimmer suggestions for why they’re scared you’re actually brainstorming for the child to pick and choose a reason that they’re crying. Often they will latch onto a suggested “fear” because they want to please the parent and if it gets the same result, not swimming, then they don’t have to actually address their real fear.

Instead, explain that there is nothing to fear about swimming lessons. Make no outward or verbal display of your own uncertainty or apprehension (your child will pick up on your non-verbal cues and cry harder). Address their fear by saying, “I know that you are afraid. I’m right here to protect you and Mr or Mrs swim instructor is here to help you in a fun and positive way.” Remain silent and offer hugs or other affectionate reassurances, but remain silent unless you have a positive thing to say. If they offer an actual articulated reason they are afraid or crying, address it as best you can.

  • Parents: Hand off your child physically to the swim instructor

Parents of crying children, if they are still leaking tears but not outright breaking down in crying fits, and if you feel they are ready to start their lesson, YOU need to physically walk them to the swim instructor and place their hand in the hands of the swim instructor. You need to do this physical and deliberate act. It conveys trust and ownership. By walking your child to the swim instructor and placing their hand in the swim instructor’s you are physically telling the child some important things: 1) the parent trusts the swim instructor. 2) the swim instructor is an authority the parent believes in. 3) The parent is passing authority over the child to the swim instructor and they are to be listened to.  From then on, the parent should redirect any swim related questions to the swim instructor thereby further reinforcing the authority and competence of the swim instructor in the child’s eyes.  As a parent, you might be required to do this action repeatedly. Over and over you should walk your tearful child to the instructor and physically hand them off.

Parents! DO NOT force the swim instructor to chase down your child and physically pull them off you. You are destroying and eroding the implicit trust in the swim instructor in the child’s eyes.

What should parents do when their child starts crying during a swim lesson:

  • Parents: Do not stare worriedly at your child from the observation area.

When the child is in swim lessons sometimes they will realize you are not with them and burst into tears in a flurry of separation anxiety. If the parent is hovering near the windows with a snot soaked rag to their nose sniffling in apprehensive red eye’d terror its almost inevitable that the child will lunge for the wall crying for their parent. This is a dramatic case of a parent equally anxious about their child in swimming lessons conveying quite overtly how uncomfortable and scared they are. Because you are the child’s parent they will gravitate to your mood and emotions and respond accordingly.  Break eye contact or do something else.

Instead, stand confidently providing smiles, thumbs ups, waves and signs of encouragement whenever possible. Or read a book and enjoy the brief down time you’ll have while your child is playfully and happily (behind those tears) participating in their swimming lesson.

  • If the child is looking at the parent repeatedly reaching out for them the parent should remove themselves from the child’s sight.

Yup, go hide! Most swim lesson facilities have a secret spot where you can see the classes and watch your child, but the child either can’t see you or doesn’t realize that you’re in view. Most times this immediately alleviates the child’s searching and looking for the parent. They reach for you because they know that the parent is going to come swooping in and protect them from the scary swimming pool. If the parent is removed from sight, then the child will likely immediately start participating in the swim lesson because they get bored and know that the parent isn’t there to manipulate and come get them.

Remember that the parent is not the focus of the swim lesson, the child is and the swim instructors will better engage the child when the parent is not also a member of the class.

Some reasons a child cry’s at swimming lessons:

What causes fear of the water?

  • Being forced into water activities with no preparation or expectation given in a hostile or unhelpful environment
  • Being raised by parents that are themselves afraid of the water and have knowingly or unknowingly communicated this fear to their children
  • Having had a traumatic water accident, or witnessing one

Remember, children LEARN to be afraid of the water.


  • Offer bribes. “We’ll get ice cream for your good behavior today at swim lessons.” This reinforces a negative association with swimming lessons and the learning process.
  • Stop lessons totally because child cried in the beginning.
  • Be scared for your child. All your anxiety to be picked up and amplified by your child. When you are nervous or uncertain, your child will pick up on all the unspoken and subtle body language and between the lines words you’re using to avoid participating. Parents like this are often subconsciously cueing their children to act out negatively because they are uneasy about swim lessons and letting go. Hide your hesitation and fears about swimming and let your child participate. Put on a happy face and encourage your child to participate in the only activity that will actually save their life.

Tears, Fears, and new environments

The major reason a child may cry at a swim lessons is because it is a new place. If your child has never been to a swimming pool, they may be frightened of the newness of it.

Cure: Visit the pool beforehand with your child and walk around the deck pointing out different “landmarks.” Most pools offer some sort of open swim where the public can come in as a family and use the pool. Take advantage of these offerings and swim in the water with your new swimmer to establish happy associations with the pool.

Children also cry because they want to be with their parents.

These are the kids that ignore the pool, and look out the window, 0r into the surrounding area for the parents. They will cry and refuse to participate while crying and reaching for the parent. These children usually have experience with other activities where their parent has taken them out because they cried. They believe that the parent will come in and take them out of the scary new thing if they cry and reach for the parent long enough.

Cure: DO NOT rush to your child’s “aid.” They are fine. Generally the swim lesson manager will suggest that you leave the area so the child cannot see you. Sometimes they offer a “hidden” area that you can see your child, but your child will have difficulty seeing you. Resist the urge to protect your child and let them participate in their lesson. Rushing to their rescue from a non-issue will only disrupt the class, and your child’s chance at success.

New swimmers sometimes cry because they don’t like the feel of the water, or they are uncomfortable going under the water.

This is a learned response.  Babies will instinctively hold their breath and open their eyes underwater. We LEARN to not like being underwater. The majority of a beginning swim lesson is getting the participants to go underwater and be unafraid of it.

Cure: Show up every week and expose them to going underwater as often as possible. When at home, pour water over their head while bathing. Start by pouring water while they look up and it only goes over their hair, and “splash” some into their face and treat it like its normal. Give your child mechanisms to cope with water in their eyes; DON”T FREAK OUT about it and they won’t. Tell them to wipe their eyes with their hands and keep moving on.  It is the parents responsibility to show up to the lessons and be consistent.

Enrolling your child in swim lessons is an excellent choice. It is important to learn how to at least know the basics of how to swim. USA swimming through their Make a Splash arm has produced these interesting facts:

– Drowning is the 2nd leading cause of childhood accidental death
– Ten people drown each day in the U.S.
– Seven out of ten African-American children cannot swim
– Six out of ten Hispanic children cannot swim
– 40% of Caucasian children have low or no swimming ability
– Children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be

at-risk of drowning

– Participation in formal swim lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88%.

As a prevention measure, swim lessons are a great idea. With that said, it is good know what to expect on your first few lessons, and what you, as a parent should do when you show up.

Hand out these flyers to parents at your swim program!

Crying Child Flyer 1
Crying Child Flyer 2

Better swimming.
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