I know from the emails I’ve received, that many of you are wondering how the whole flat refusal to go swimming has concluded. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you might want to catch yourself up on this dilemma here.

So, when we left off last time, I’d filled you in on my tips for what to do in the short term, at the time the refusal is happening. But that doesn’t solve the underlying problem. I also listed some of the strategies that we were going to use to deal with the underlying problem. Today I’m covering those in more detail so you understand why they work.

My son throwing an awesome tantrum at Old Parliament House - fortunately this was an easy fix.

My son throwing an awesome tantrum at Old Parliament House – fortunately this was an easy fix.

Longer term strategies for coping with refusal

Take the heat off and re-group

It might be of benefit to avoid the situation temporarily, if you can, while you figure out what the issue is. We quickly realised that with swimming, we didn’t have the time to deal with her underlying fears before her next lesson. So we suspended her account for a month. We knew this would give us time to tackle this situation from a variety of areas before we had to put her back in the hot-seat.

I also hoped that having to go to swimming lessons each week and watch her brother have fun in his lesson, without the anxiety that she’d be next, would allow her to see that swimming is fun and possibly remember how much she enjoyed it. But, most importantly, we took the pressure off. There wasn’t any talk about how she should be swimming. We didn’t push the issue. Instead we focused on how much fun her brother was having. We looked at other children in the pool, having fun. We saw how some were nervous and watched how they overcame it. But we didn’t make it about her. We took the pressure off. (Does my repetitiveness drive the point home?)

Have a variety of tricks up your sleeve

If there is one thing my years of teaching has taught me, there isn’t one ‘cure all’ strategy. What works for one child, might not work for another. What works today, might not work for tomorrow. So I use a really complex strategy called, “Try everything and one of them has to work” approach. 

But first you need to work out your variety of approaches… and this is where the next step comes into effect.

Take time Out. Think. Get your game plan together.

This next part is going to sound like I’m a little OTT. To be honest, I might be. But I take this seriously. I also use thinking tools. My husband definitely calls this OTT, but I call it being smart. I use thinking tools (or approaches) to help me problem solve at work, so why not in my parenting?

Think about everyone who might be involved in getting this refusal back on track. Write a list (it doesn’t have to be on paper, it can just be in your head… if you wrote it on paper that might be considered OTT). In the case of my daughter’s swimming refusal, it’s pretty much just my husband and I. My mum and her swimming instructor were two others we could get involved. My mum’s role will be explained later. The swimming instructor? I just needed to inform him on what she was afraid of so he could be more conscious of that when he taught her. I don’t expect him to change his lessons, just be aware. Ideally he could be a little more confident in his approach with her. I suspect part of her hesitation is his nervousness. Children, like dogs and horses (as my father would say) sense your apprehension and then feel there must be something to be concerned about… But I can’t exactly change her swimming instructor, so there isn’t any point dwelling on him. I digress.

Ok. So the people who need to be involved have been identified. Now it’s time for my husband and I to pull together our strategies for dealing with this. This involves doing some research and this research could be as simple as finding out from my daughter what her issue is she is concerned about. Or it could be quite involved. But, of course, the first stop is always to talk to your child. Then also consider doing any, or all, of the following;

  • Finding out from your network of other parents if their children experienced anything similar and how they handled it – Really helps to have friends with grown up children at this stage because parents with children of a similar age, while they might seem like they have it all together, are kind of still working things out just like you. But if they’re children are much older, they might not remember. Your parents are often a wealth of information. Often the stunts your children pull, are the same stunts you pulled. Sobering. I know.
  • Read any relevant literature.
  • Ask an expert. This could be your child’s swimming instructor, their teacher, their doctor, etc. I put this after read any relevant literature because if you are going to take up the time of someone else, do your research first. It used to annoy me when parents asked advice about things that a quick ‘google’ could’ve given them an answer to. Experts don’t have all the time in the world, so if you ask their advice it should be because you need tailored advice for you child. Most of the time the generic advice from literature will work.

From this you should be able to develop a list to strategies that may, or may not, work for your child. Here is when I impart some of my mother’s sage wisdom – Listen to everyone but then choose what will work best for you. You know your child best. Even an expert in parenting who has multiple degrees specialising in the exact thing your child is having issues in, doesn’t know your child as well as you do. Gather the strategies that might work for your child. You can either use my ‘scatter-gun’ approach and try all of them, or pick a few. But in almost all cases you will need more than one strategy. Us humans are complex beings. We are not easy to solve. Use more than one strategy.

For our swimming situation? We chose the following;

  • Talking about her fears
  • Watching tv episodes where the main character had to do something that made them afraid and then we talked about it (very important to talk about it so your child actually makes the connection between what’s happening on screen and their situation)
  • Utilising a wider support network
  • Make it fun
  • Put a reward system in place to acknowledge her effort 
  • Focus on something positive

These strategies are delved into, in more detail as you read on.

Acknowledge what’s scaryscary_monster_closet

Don’t dismiss what’s scary for your child. Often what scares one person, is totally incomprehensible to another person. I am scared of moths. My husband doesn’t get it. Moths don’t bite. Moths aren’t poisonous. My fear is illogical. I know that. But I’m still going to scream like a banshee if one flies towards me. If my husband dismissed my fear, it wouldn’t make me fear them any less. But if he empowered me, I’d be far more likely to deal with moths better. We aren’t so different from our children.

My daughter is afraid of a few things here. Going underwater is a big one. So when we aren’t anywhere near water, we chat about this fear. We talked about how drowning is a very real and valid fear. That’s part of why we want her to learn to swim. But then we also talk about the likelihood of her drowning during a swimming lessons (I won’t bore you with the details). This arms her with the facts. Don’t assume they understand these. It didn’t occur to my daughter that even if her teacher doesn’t see her go under (which happened at the swimming lesson before the refusal) that her father and I were watching. We would’ve dived right in, if she hadn’t stood up. When we went to the pool the following week, for her brother’s lesson, I pointed out all the other swim teachers who weren’t in the pool, but were walking around just watching, making sure everyone was safe.

These facts will give her the logical thoughts she needs, if she is to have half a hope of talking herself out of her anxiety spiral.

Now, this next suggestion isn’t necessarily supported by all the literature, but it helps me so I figured it would help her. We talked through the ‘worst’ possible scenario – she is floating on her back and water goes up her nose… That’s not pleasant and scary. Let’s rate how scary that is. Is it a big problem or a little problem? (This question is a lifesaver for our daughter who catastrophises.) What can we do about it? Knowing that you have a plan for some of the things that might go wrong, can give you confidence.

Involve an ‘outsider’ who is considered impartial by your child

This is often where I get my mum involved. She ‘happens’ to have conversations with my daughter at just the right times about just the right topics. Of course none of this is coincidence. It is all planned. Basically I back fill my mum in on what has happened so that we can come up with an approach, so she can talk to my daughter in a way that I can’t… because you know, I’m the mean mum who is the bearer of consequences for this undesirable behaviour – where she is the loving Nanna who is the bearer of endless cuddles and baker of unlimited ANZAC biscuits.

It’s very important that this person doesn’t pass judgement. They aren’t here to be the parent. That’s your job. Their job is to listen. That doesn’t mean they agree with your child. But they let your child know that they are supported, loved and cherished. They can remind your child of how much you love them, and that sometimes, because you love them, you get angry and upset with them. They can remind your child that just because you two are having a difference of opinion at the moment, that doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. Just be careful, too many ‘reminders’ make the conversation sound ‘preachy’ and then this becomes a different kind of conversation. Hence, this person needs to be chosen really well. They need to walk that fine line between being a supportive ‘ear’ for your child, and letting them know when they don’t agree. For me, this person is my information gatherer. They are going to help me see things from my child’s perspective. Ideally this would come directly from my child, but you know, at the moment we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye…

Now, at four years of age, my daughter isn’t so suspicious yet. She hasn’t put together how artfully my mother guides conversations to just the right topic. But I know it won’t be long before she clues on to this. When she does, my mum will just be upfront. There is no point trying to hide what you’re doing. Of course I’d talk to my mum about what’s happening. I don’t want to hide that. After all, that’s the exact same relationship I’d like to have with my daughter. I want her to be able to come to talk to me about things. But if she can’t come to me, I want her to know the other people in our network she can confide in. People like her Nanna. Research shows that children who have a wide support network are more resilient. I’m not a fool. I know that there will be things that will happen in her life where she won’t feel comfortable talking to me. By setting up support network for her now, at least I am guiding her to the people who will give her appropriate advice. It’s all about the ‘long term’ plan here.

In this situation, my mum knew to be really excited (like REALLY excited) when my daughter told her how she went underwater when we went to the pool as a family. When we drove in for her swimming lesson, she knew to ask my daughter in that REALLY excited voice if she was going to go underwater in her special goggles? Was she going to float on her back? My mum also knew to set aside time after my daughter’s swimming lesson because my daughter was going to call her straight after and tell her how many times she went underwater. Notice all the positive language? All the talk is about what my daughter will do in the pool – not if she is going to go in the pool. So my mum is there to support my daughter in many ways – listen to her, be her cheering squad, be the one she can excitedly call to re-live her awesome accomplishment, this list could go on.

My Little Miss with her Nanna. They are great friends.

My Little Miss with her Nanna. They are great friends.

Make it fun

It quickly became apparent that we didn’t hang out at the beach anymore, now we lived in the country, nor did we go to swimming pools. So the only time my children were in a pool, was for their swimming lessons. We wondered if the pool itself was starting to only be associated with ‘serious’ swimming lessons. It sounded like a logical conclusion. We wanted our daughter to understand how much fun you can have, when you know how to swim. That swimming pools weren’t just about lessons. So we decided to go, as a family, to a local pool. But keep in mind, this was about having fun. As tempting as it was, we didn’t push her to do any ‘lesson’ type stuff. But of course, after a while, she gained the confidence to try it out anyway. It started with her kicking her legs, then blowing bubbles. We celebrated her efforts, but didn’t encourage her to, “just try x/y/z” She ended up going underwater and we rewarded this spontaneous effort with a pair of googles. Because you know, the reward fits the activity. She then proceed to wear the googles for the rest of the day. And yes, we took photos.

A few nights later, when we were lying in bed as she fell asleep, we reflected on our fun in the pool. We talked about how her father and I could swim underwater like mermaids. She asked if she could do that to. I told her that of course she could, but she’d need to go to swimming lessons to learn how – just like her daddy and I did. And I left it there. No pressure.

Put a reward system in place to acknowledge her effort

Again, reward systems are something that the literature doesn’t always agree on. My husband is a big believer. He likes how they are tangible. The chart on the wall kind of tangible. Me? I’ve used them occasionally. But I’ve always found other strategies to be more effective and better at developing an internal attitude of wanting to try (as opposed to doing it for a reward). So in my mind, this strategy is more for my husband. When my daughter refused to get in the pool, there were certain consequences. Once of them was losing her favourite tv show, until she started swimming lessons again. Harsh. I know. So as soon as she gets in the pool again, she gets to watch her favourite tv show. For a while she was, “That’s ok I like my brother’s tv shows.” But after a while, she really just wanted to watch her tv show again.

I don’t think rewards are effective in this instance, mainly because we are dealing with real fears. However, for something like toilet training, I think rewards work a treat. Rewards give that added incentive until the act of going to the toilet becomes a habit. But remember, rewards are generally short lived in their effectiveness AND can end up being very expensive to maintain (not to mention the whole internal/external motivation conundrum). You also have to be consistent for reward charts to be effective. To me, reward charts and the like, are just more trouble than they’re worth.

Focus on something positive

We knew, that as the inevitable date approached, her anxiety would surface more and more. So, in addition to acknowledging what made her nervous and trying to tackle that with our logical thoughts, we also needed to give her some positive things to focus on. In the case of her swimming lessons it was so easy. We bought her a swimming costume with a tutu on it. She’s four. Easily pleased. But this is a special swimming costume that will only be used for swimming lessons. Seriously. Do not underestimate the power of a tutu for a toddler. I say ‘toddler’, not little girl, because anyone who has a son who has come after a daughter, knows that sons can be quite partial to a good tutu too. So when we talk about her swimming lesson, it won’t be about her swimming lesson, it will be about wearing this totally cool swimming costume and those awesome goggles. How exciting!!

And when the ‘issue’ comes around again? Two things:

Remember previous sucess

As the day approaches, on the car trip in, etc We won’t labour on it, but when opportunities come up, we’ll take advantage of the opportunity to discuss previous positive associations with swimming. This could be anything from our bedtime chat about how much fun we had at the pool together as a family, to how brave she was going underwater.

My daughter is only about 10months, and in the pool, smiling, being held by her dad.

We dug into the archives and looked at old swimming pictures as we were waiting for her lesson to begin.

Have positive language

Remember my mum’s phone calls. She focuses on what my daughter will do. There is a lot of empowerment in that. We aren’t going to focus on the ‘cannot’ or what we’re scared about. I won’t be asking my daughter if she’s going to get in the pool. I’ll be asking her do a twirl for me when she gets in the water so I can see her tutu spin underwater. I’m being both positive and taking the focus off what she’s afraid of. I’m focusing her on the activity of spinning in her tutu (something she loves) and talking about everything in the positive, she will be doing it.

Please don’t get confused. This isn’t ‘positive’ in the ‘positive/negative’ way, but positive in the ‘it will happen’ way. My mum is waiting for her call so that she can be told of all the things my daughter did in her lesson. There isn’t any question in that statement about if my daughter is getting in the pool. We assume she will get in. We focus on all the fun stuff that happens when she gets in.


Now. Nothing is ever perfect. There will be times when you can have all the very best plans, executed perfectly… but we humans are complicated beings. We don’t work according to plan. So sometimes you just have to pick your battle, re-group, and try again.

In the case of my daughter and her swimming lesson? Well she cried the entire way through the lesson – but she stuck with it. There were a lot of ‘high fives’ from me when she reached the end of each lane… and while I may have looked a little ridiculous and a little over-enthusiastic – she stuck with it. Yup. She stuck with it. I’m going to keep saying that because I have to remind myself that it’s that, what’s important, not how ridiculous I looked. When she finished, she was so proud of herself. I was exhausted. Fingers crossed next week involves a little less enthusiasm from me!


Maybe my tips aren’t right for your situation, or maybe you’d just like to read more! Here are some great websites:

Anxiety, Fears and Phobias

Anxiety in Children and Fears

Children and Bedtime Fears

Everyone Gets Scared

Positive Parenting: Dealing with Power Struggles

Parent-Child Power Struggles

Psych Central: Parent Child Power Struggles

Written by Nadia

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