Overcoming Fears

Okay, I admit it. It is sensible to fear the ocean, to some extent. Our 10-year-old son just won't go in if there are any waves at all. The rest of the family, including his two younger siblings, all go in, romp, have an obvious good time, and tell him, "Wow, it is so much fun in here." Ocean swimming is one of the few inexpensive, fun things to do around here in August, and it would be really great if we could persuade him to come in (I'm pretty sure he would love it if he would try it).

Are we on the right track? How do you get small humans to overcome their fears?

--A Parent Soup member

Robert Schwebel

Clinical psychologist Robert Schwebel, PhD, has been in private practice for almost 30 years, counseling children, couples and... Read more

By the age of 10, your son should be able to talk about his fears. Perhaps you could ask him to be specific about what it is that he fears. You might also ask him if he ever had any scary experiences in the ocean, or in water, or whether he saw any movies or television shows about the ocean that may have scared him. Then, you could offer reassurance.

Another possible way to approach this is to help your son get comfortable in the water in small increments. For example, you could build a sand castle by the edge of the water. Maybe he could go with you to get water to pour on the sand castle. Maybe you could hold hands and stand together in shallow water. In other words, you could help him gradually approach the water. Instead of trying to persuade him to go in, which is a tactic that tends to breed resistance, you can encourage him; saying it is safe, that you wouldn't take him if it were dangerous, and that it's important for him overcome this fear. Standing up to fears is part of growing up.

Another consideration is attention. Does your son get lots of attention about this fear -- does everyone try to persuade him to swim? Also, do you sometimes not go to the ocean because of his fear? If so, this would give him a sense of power that he might like. Another option is to allow your son to stay on the shore, and simply see that he is missing fun -- without trying to convince him otherwise. This wouldn't be punishment -- just reality. In fact, you could bring other fun things for him to do at the beach. He might start thinking that he is missing something good, and then push himself to go in.

Is this the only big fear your son has? Is he fearful in general? Some children do tend to be slow to approach new experiences. They need a little extra time and encouragement. It's part of their temperament. Some children have learned to be fearful. They need help in developing their own strength and courage. When children need help because they tend to be fearful, or because they have a significant phobia they cannot overcome, counseling can be very effective. In particular, cognitive behavioral counseling has been shown to help with fears and anxiety.

I agree with you. The ocean is a great delight. I hope you can empower your son to overcome his fears.

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