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Learn Something New (Especially When You’re Afraid!)

The first week of May 2017, my son refused to get into the community pool shallow end and stand on a platform, where he was to start his first swimming lesson (to note, this was in fact the very same community pool where we would all happily swim on the weekends).

The first week of July, he was the youngest to pass the test of swimming the deep end width of the pool (both ways) without any flotation device in order to be allowed to jump off the diving board.

If you’re a little nervous to learn something new (or supporting someone else who is), what happened in those two months might hold a useful nugget or two!

Here’s how things went down:

Swimming Lesson #1

LOTS of crying.

Aiden keeps saying the water is too cold and he refuses to go in.

Mama and Daddy keep reminding him — over and over again — that this is the same water that we swim in on the weekends. For good measure, we remind him of how he SOBBED one day when he chose to go to his friend’s house and didn’t quite understand that that meant he wasn’t going to get to go swimming with us. (In case you’re not reading between the lines, we used logic to convince him that what he was feeling and experiencing was, in fact, wrong.)

Aiden INSISTS that the water is too cold. Shivers dramatically for good measure.

He goes in for the last five minutes of the lesson, looking horrified. Other parents stare. It’s good times had by all.

Swimming Lesson #2

EVEN MORE CRYING.

Aiden refuses to go in the water.

Mama and Daddy remind him that he needs to learn how to swim in order to be able to be safe while swimming in various locations that summer. (Yeah, depending on how you look at it, we either threatened or bribed or tried to use his “currency” in remembering his “why.”)

We leave the pool having accomplished not much of anything.

Swimming Lesson #3

He happily enters the water.

He actively participates in his lesson.

I see, Chantal. So the secret is to remind the person of their “why”? Sounds familiar.

Well … yes and more! Let me break it down and describe the three strategies that had him go from NO WAY to ALL THE WAY in the pool!

1Connect to the “WHY”

Aiden’s why was important to him. When we tried to leverage it during lesson #2, there was a glimmer. A yearning. A desire. But … no go. Helping someone else to be brave? Hone those EQ skills. You had to have noticed that glimmer to know you were onto something. And helping the learner to verbalize why they should bother is important. Helping them connect to that why is important. BUT, what do you do when someone so intensely wants to learn something new, but can’t? Or won’t?

2Support — patience, speak the truth, stay curious longer

Bedtime is a special time for my kids and me. It’s connection time. It’s “What made you proud today?” time. It’s keeping-it-real time. So, I took a breath. I was frustrated by the whole experience. I knew that he wanted to and could learn to swim. But my frustration and energy was keeping him from feeling supported to be honest. So I stopped trying to convince him that he needed to get in the pool and gently and with curiosity asked him what was going on. I had to ask a few times. I had to keep my energy curious and loving. And eventually? Eventually he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to fall off.” 

“What?” I said. “What do you mean?” 

“Mama, I’m afraid I’m going to fall off the platform. I don’t know how to swim yet. What if I fall off the platform?” 

The truth. Finally. And something we could work with. Finally.

If you’re struggling to take that first step (or you’re supporting someone else who is), speaking the “fear” truth is necessary.

3Strategies — short term

Once Aiden felt supported and encouraged to speak the truth — and we didn’t offer up our own solutions or advice — we were able to develop short-term strategies that helped him to feel more comfortable. Together, we decided to approach the next lesson using three strategies that Aiden said would help him to feel brave: (1) we would approach the coach together and make sure she was aware of his fear so that she could pay special attention to him to keep him feeling safe; (2) I would stand right at the edge of the pool for the lesson to help reassure him that someone who cared would be there “just in case”; and (3) he asked to always be in the middle of the platform to help him feel reassured.

And that was what we did at lesson #3. When we got there for lesson #4, I happily followed him to stand by the pool (rather than in the viewing area) in order to support him and felt such pride when he said, “You can go with Daddy, Mama. I’m okay now.”

Wanting to learn something new but feeling afraid?

I ask you this:

What’s your why?

What truth do you need to acknowledge?

What short-term strategies will help you to feel brave?

Happy learning!

Dr. Chantal Thorn, Ph.D.
Director, Program Development
Box of Crayons


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