Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Facing Fears: Going All The Way Under

Ben is sitting on the side of the pool, mentally preparing for his turn with swimming lessons.

Unfortunately, fears and anxieties are a part of daily life in Ben’s world. 

He worries about how many minutes he has until bedtime. 

He becomes anxious when a bee gets to close to him when we are playing outside. 

He freaks out when the battery life on his iPad falls below 10 percent.

But, one of Ben’s biggest fears that has persisted over time has been going under water.  When he was little he hated to get his hair wet, even in the bathtub.  I’d use a wet cloth to wash his hair, always keeping a dry towel nearby to catch the remaining drips.  He’d scream if any water got into his nose or eyes.  It goes without saying that he refused to put his head under water at the swimming pool.

It’s not that we didn’t try lessons.  You can read here about one memorable meltdown that happened at the pool.  Last year I even sprung for private lessons.  Still, he refused to put his head under.  He wouldn’t even jump in the water, because he remembered the one time he went under when the instructor was trying to “stretch” his comfort zone.  This boy has a long memory.  If the instructor “forced” him to go under or surprised him by dunking his head during a playful game of "ring around the rosies", he’d scream, cry, and demand to leave the pool.

Ben is now six years old, and I was determined that this would be the summer that he’d learn to swim.  We live in Florida and learning to swim is really a necessity.  And so I took him to the “swimming whisperer” of our area.  Truly, parents talk about this man in near reverent tones.  When someone asks for a swimming teacher, he’s always the first mentioned.  Mr. C.J.”* is an elementary school P.E. coach and teaches private lessons from his home during his summer break.  I don’t know why we waited until this year to try him.  Call me chicken.  Call me crazy.  But, honestly, I’m just glad that I did finally call him.

I could tell right away that this time would be different.  In stark contrast the sweet teenage girls who usually taught Ben’s swimming lessons, Mr. C.J was a middle aged, no-nonsense kind of guy.  After introducing myself on that first day, I took him aside.  I explained Ben’s sensory issues.  I explained Ben’s fear of going under.  Mr. C.J. listened courteously but didn’t look the least bit concerned.  I later realized that he’d heard this same line many times before.  I nervously seated myself in one of Mr. C.J’s patio chairs and prepared to watch.  Ben was up first.

After one or two laps to get him warmed up, Mr. C.J. showed Ben how to make a bubble with his mouth.

And then he counted.


He told him to take a deep breath….

And then swiftly he pushed his head under the water.

Ben popped up the surface, spluttering, shocked, and surprised.  Ben wanted his towel, as he always does when water gets in his face.  Mr. C.J. was having none of it.  No drying off until we're done.  No crying in his pool.  Ben looked my way, pleadingly, but I tried to maintain my stream of conversation with the mom sitting next to me and remain stoic. 

He was preparing Ben for another go.

One…two…three…deep breath….

…and under…

A moment later, his hand pushed Ben’s head under the water yet again. 

….and again. 

I exhaled each time Ben’s head popped up out of the water. 

After the fifth time, I realized that I was holding my breath too. 

It was tough to watch. 

I’m not honestly sure how I was able to maintain a conversation with the mom next to me. 

My heart was pounding. 

My mouth was dry. 

What was I doing to my child? 

It went against everything I believed- to force him to do something he wasn’t comfortable doing.

But- deep down- I knew that he was ready.  And I knew he had to learn this skill to keep himself safe. 

And so I kept chatting about camps and vacations and kindergarten but in my mind I silently counted as they counted. 

One…two…three…deep breath…

….and under…

After Ben’s initial turn, he sat on the steps while the other children in his group took their turns.  On Ben’s second turn, he knew what was coming.  He tried everything he could to avoid it.  He asked for a drink.  He needed his goggles fixed.  He pleaded for his coach to take him back to the steps.  Again, coach wasn’t buying it. 

One…two…three…deep breath…

…and under….

As Ben’s head popped up to the surface, coach did what he did every time.  He praised Ben effusively.  He showed him the distance he traveled in the water.  I was amazed at how quickly the tears dried up.  By his third turn, Ben wasn’t crying at all and was preparing his body to go under.  After the lessons were done, Ben proclaimed that it was “not too scary”.  He proudly told his Dad that he was a swimmer now.    

I watched Ben face his fear the first day, and each lesson after has gotten progressively easier.  He didn’t cry at all during yesterday’s lesson or today’s.  Each day he has gained a little more confidence, and he swims a little farther on his own.  

I’m not sure if this method would work for every child.  In fact, I’m not sure it would have worked with Ben until this year, when he was mentally ready to learn.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe he would have mastered swimming at six months old if I would have pushed him in this way.  Who knows?  The point is, it’s working for him now. 

I spoke to Ben’s OT about it, and she said the reason she believes that coach’s method works is because the fear is what is holding the child back.  The fear becomes bigger than anything else.  And, as the fear grows, it’s harder and harder for the child to move past it on his own.  Often, he needs a “push” to get past the fear.  And, after this breakthrough happens, then the learning process can begin.

On the second day a new little boy joined the group.  I listened as his mom nervously explained to Mr. C.J. about her son’s sensory issues, that he wouldn’t put his face under the water.  Mr. C.J. smiled at me and pointed to Ben, who had just dunked his head under.  “Ben was the same way yesterday.  Your little boy will be fine.”  And, amazingly, this little boy was.  Oh yes, he cried too.  But, just like Ben, he held his breath and dunked his face under on his own on the second day’s lessons.  And, just like Ben, on the second day he didn’t cry once.  In fact, we saw him pop his head above the water and smile.  And the new mom and I watched and marveled in amazement.

*I’ve changed Mr. CJ’s name to protect his privacy, as I change all names on this blog.  If, however, you know me in the real world and want his contact information, send me a private message and I’m happy to pass it along.  Just bear in mind that this man fills his classes up fast! 

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