I have had the pleasure of swimming with Izzy before in a group- there are two or three other kids in the class, as well as parents. Izzy is always so excited to get in the pool…but only with mom. For a long time (until just recently), she wouldn’t get near me without crying. In mom’s arms, she bounces up and down with excitement, giggling and curiously looking at everyone and everything in the pool.
When she sees me coming, her eyes get big, she clenches her arms around mom’s neck and she starts “fake” crying. You know the cry- “Waaaaahhhhh!” No tears, just forced noises, making sure everyone knows that this is her mother and the scary woman singing and coming at her with open arms and a squirty fish is the enemy.
It is common for a child to have separation anxiety- typically mom (or dad, or caregiver) does everything for her and makes her feel protected. I come along to take her away from that safe person and do something beyond her comfort zone, so she cries. Or screams. Or kicks. Or whines. She does whatever she needs to do for mom to make her feel safe again. This is the tough part. This is where the apron strings come in, and sometimes they are tied very tight.
In my experience, it’s usually the parent that won’t cut the strings. Fortunately, Izzy’s mama is awesome and trusts me. She asks questions to find out what is best for Izzy (not necessarily what’s easiest for mom). If Izzy fusses, rather than taking her back right away, mom smiles, tells her it’s okay and gets out of the way. Seeing that mom is calm, cool and fine with the situation helps Izzy feel the same way. It’s important for a parent to show that he/she trusts whomever the child is with (swim instructor, nanny teacher, etc.) because it makes the child feel more at ease.
A parent swimming with a child is a great way to bond and I love that Izzy and mom get to do that. Yet, I wanted to work with Izzy one-on-one because I knew I could get her to a more confident place in the water independently. I knew she would do more if mom wasn’t around- that she would test the boundaries a bit with me. Mom was all for it, although we both had our reservations about how she would react when mom walked away and we were alone. Mom did great (as always)- With a huge smile on her face she told Izzy, “Go with Miss Kim. I’ll be back at the end of the lesson.” Mom walked off the pool deck and didn’t make a big deal about it, so neither did Izzy. Right away, we began to sing songs together and laugh. I had so much fun working with her one-on-one. She wanted to stand up by herself, get the toys by herself and use the kick board by herself. Every so often, Izzy would look around and say, “Mama?” I would tell her, “Remember, she is coming back at the end of your lesson. First we swim, then mama comes back.” That was all she needed- reassurance that mom would return.
TIPS TO EASE SEPARATION ANXIETY
If your child is starting swim lessons, karate, a new preschool or any new activity, these tips will help you and your child ease into it with a smooth transition.
1. Prepare your child for the activity: Tell her about the new activity before it begins. Speak calmly and avoid negative words and phrases. I can’t tell you how often I hear people completely freaking their kids out: “You’re not gonna DROWN.” “Don’t be SCARED.” “I know it’s SCARY, but…” You probably don’t even realize what you’re saying. Try: “You are going to have so much FUN.” “This is EXCITING.” “The teacher is so NICE and will HELP you.”
2. If you’re nervous, that’s okay, but keep it to yourself: Your child will feed off of whatever you are doing- she is looking at you to model appropriate behavior in this new situation. Keep it together!
3. Show trust: If your child clings to your leg screaming, please don’t make the teacher pry her off of your leg or chase her around. As a teacher, I don’t want to have to outsmart my student, capture her and force her to swim with me. Help me out here. You want to show your child that you trust the teacher. Walk your child over and make an introduction, showing that you are okay with this new situation. Let her know that you will be back at the end of the lesson. Walk away!
4. Listen to the teacher’s directions and follow them: I know you may not agree with what the teacher says, but the teacher is the expert, which is why you brought your child to him. Let’s talk about being asked to “go out of sight” during your child’s lesson. It’s okay. Don’t panic. Typically, you can watch, but be stealth, go incognito and whatever you do- Don’t let your child see or hear you. Here’s the thing- As soon as you smile, walk away, and your child can’t see you- she’s fine. This is hard for some parents to handle. You don’t hear crying anymore and don’t feel needed, so you pop your head up to see what’s happening (surely your child can’t be having fun without you). You see her smile, you wave and now your mind can rest at ease. Nope. Now she sees you and remembers that she is supposed to be upset, so she starts crying again. And the cycle continues.
5. Do a trial run: If you are really nervous, go to the facility ahead of time to take a tour, ask any questions and become familiar with the environment. You can always call the facility to ask questions or check Yelp online to see what others recommend. There are also a lot of online community message board like Parenting or Cafe Mom that offer advice and support. You’re not the first parent to be nervous, so learn from those before you!
The more you prepare your child (and yourself!), the smoother the transition will be. Swimming lessons should be fun, not stressful! Izzy enjoys coming to the pool, mom makes it as stress-free as possible, and now even dad is joining us in the water! I’m so lucky!