It happens even when you’re right there, within arms reach of your child. One minute, they’re bobbing on a noodle or splashing on the steps. The next minute, they’re under water. You only took your eyes off them for one second, but it was during that second that your child disappeared.
You lunge for them and pluck them up quickly – before any harm is done. They are physically fine, but then what? How you react has an enormous impact on how they recover and move on from the incident. Some children will barely even register that something scary has happened, while others will be shaken and initially terrified and confused.
I know that as the parent, your heart will be beating so fast it’s a wonder it doesn’t fly right out of your chest and you will probably feel faint. The residual thoughts will plague you for hours, if not days: What if I hadn’t been there? What if I hadn’t seen him or her for another few seconds? Why did I turn away for even a second? Being prepared for these tiny, yet significant, moments can help you and your child move through them smoothly.
First, understand that having your child under water for a second or two is not physically harmful beyond the fact that they might have been unprepared and swallowed some water. The best thing you can do for your child is to downplay the incident as much as possible.
Comfort your child (and yourself) for a few minutes. Hold them in the water and kiss and hug them. Use words that acknowledge your child’s fear, discomfort or confusion without putting ideas in their head that may not be there already. Here is an example of what you can say: “Honey, you slipped under the water for a second. You did such a good job of keeping yourself up as much as possible and Mommy was right there to get you. Sometimes that happens in the water and that’s why Mommy is always close by, so I can catch you. Soon, you’ll learn how to catch yourself when you fall, but in the meantime, I’m right here.”
See if they calm down. If they seem fine (most often they will) and want to continue to play in the pool, let them. This will allow them to end their pool session on a positive note.
If your child still seems shaken, fearful or is crying and upset, try to be comforting in a casual way. Tell them that it is time to come out of the pool, but ask them to help you carry a toy to the side, or perform some other task such as searching for leaves or butterflies that might have fallen into the pool. Hold them close against you while they help. Often, the simple act of being helpful and on a mission calms them down. Once your child is calm, take them out of the pool.
Don’t discuss the incident again unless your child brings it up: “Remember when I fell in the pool?” If that happens, you can counter with: “Yes, I do. Remember that Mommy was right there to catch you?” Rather than focus on how it felt, focus on the facts, which are easier for them to digest and remember. Don’t use the term “drowning” with your child, or if you are relaying the incident in their presence. You don’t want them to overhear your anxiety and become anxious themselves.
If your child is taking swim lessons, mention the incident to the instructor so he or she can incorporate some water safety skills into lessons to help your child feel more in control and self sufficient. If your child says they are now afraid to take lessons, talk to the swim instructor with your child present and make an agreement about what your child will or won’t do for the next couple of lessons. Your child will want to feel as in control of the situation as possible. After a lesson or two, the instructor should be able to work your child back up to where she or he was before the incident.
Calmly reiterate to your child that they are having lessons so they can learn how to swim and take care of themselves if they “falls under.” Remember that children are not afraid of learning to swim, they are afraid of falling, especially when they can’t touch the bottom of the pool.
As a parent, it is hard not to feel guilty after an incident like this, but it’s a good reminder. Be glad you had the experience, because I can assure you that your child will recover and probably forget it sooner than you think. Fortunately, you will never forget it, thus ensuring that it never happens again.
Lisa Cook is the CEO master instructor at KidSwim, which offers lessons throughout the L.A. area. She has taught swimming for more than 30 years, and is the mom of two boys.