Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Lessons from a Toddler

The importance of exposure

My child has always liked water. Even as a baby, she liked to kick in the bath and was fascinated by waterfalls.  So when we just assumed that she would love the community pool.  But when we took her to the pool, she was terrrified.  She would watch other kids splashing and having fun but when we took her within yards of it, she screamed, clung to us, and said "NO, NO, NO!!!"  There is nothing worse than your kid being terrified and knowing that it is because of something that you are exposing your child to. 

We could have decided that this year is not the year for her to start going to the pool.  But that would just teach her that the pool really is a scary place and she can't handle the anxiety.

Instead, we bring her to pools frequently.  We bought a small wading pool for the backyard and went in it with her, gradually sinking her into the water.  We showed her how to splash and dunk toys.  After just one trip to her wading pool, she was saying "Pool!  Pool!" and refusing to leave the pool.  She cried when it was time to go inside. Then we moved her up to the community pool, exposing her to it slowly.  First she sat at the edge of the wading pool area and just looked at the water and the kids playing in it until she is enticed by the idea of splashing. Then as she hung near the edge, we moved a few inches away from the edge to model that the water is safe and to encourage her to go farther.  At each point of the exposure to the pool, she remained at the step until she felt entirely comfortable with it. 

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Within two trips to the pool, she was going into water up to her neck and putting the bottom of her face in the water to blow bubbles.  After what we thought was a long enough "session" of exposure to her fear, we started to pack up to leave and she ran back into the pool to play more. 

The bravery in this pint sized little girl brings me to tears and we reward her for it with praise, high fives, hugs, and telling her how proud we are of her.  But this isn't just about the pool or whether we want her to be a swimmer like her Daddy.  This is about her learning life lessons.  She is learning that she can face her fears and that her fears do not need to guide her life.  She is learning that she can handle anxiety and discomfort and that her parents will always be there with her to face challenges.  So take a lesson from a toddler and face your fears.  You may find that if do the exposure, the water is just fine. 

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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