Find out how SOAP can wash away a camper's fear of the water
By Jeffrey R. Krieger, M.S.
SOAP (Strategies to Overcoming Aquatic Phobias) and Water is for those afraid to go near or in water. It offers dry-land counseling and teaches strategies to overcome aquatic phobias for all ages in a compassionate and friendly atmosphere.
The course content, approach and supportive environment provides emotional, mental and physical learning skills for those who are fearful or uncomfortable in or around the water. In addition, individuals are gradually introduced and exposed to the aquatic environment and taught in-water techniques and skills to enable them to learn to swim.
Ever since the tragedy of 911 I have noticed a significant increase in the number of children who have expressed and clearly exhibited a very real and powerful fear of the water. Coincidence, perhaps, but my thought is that there is a direct correlation between that horrific event and the changes that it has produced in our daily lives.
Not only are our children more unsure of the world around them, but there is a heightened sense of awareness regarding their fears and strategies that might be successful in helping them overcome them.
Fear is one of man's most valuable and effective survival mechanisms. Without the ability for our minds to respond to impending danger we would endure a much greater frequency of injuries, hardships and fatal mistakes.
This process is especially important in children simply because most often they have not yet acquired the ability to reason, the knowledge to understand, the skills to adapt and a significant level of common sense.
If not for their fear factor and the adults that supervise them, our children would constantly be finding themselves confronted with dangerous situations that they would be unable to properly identify as potentially harmful.
Most fears, therefore, are healthy and should be appreciated for their role in our survival. However, when a fear becomes abnormal, such as in the case of phobias, they can have a powerfully negative impact on a person, especially a child.
A phobia is defined as any behavior that can described as abnormal under normal conditions. For example, most sound thinking people who visit the beach and observe surf conditions with 15-foot waves and a tremendous undertow, would understandably sense fear if they were confronted with the possibility of having to enter that water. Their heart rate would dramatically increase, the stomach would get queasy, they would begin to perspire, feel faint, muscles would begin to tighten and they might possibly begin to hyperventilate.
A person with an extreme fear of the water or an aqua phobic would experience these same symptoms when confronting a three-foot wading pool. This phobic response not only interferes with their ability to react normally in that moment, it impairs their need and ability to want to learn how to overcome that overwhelming feeling of fear.
That moment and others like it evolve into a person's fear of the fear. The need to avoid that experience, no matter what the cost or ultimate sacrifice might be.
Children, who suffer from extreme fear of the water, aqua phobia, end up enduring much more than just an avoidance of water. This problem can have a huge influence on a child's self-esteem, ability to problem solve, willingness to face and overcome obstacles and their overall social, physical and emotional fitness. Especially here in Florida, where water is everywhere and people take such an interest in an aquatic lifestyle, two very serious problems confront child aqua phobics and their families.
A child who fears water and never receives help probably will never learn how to swim, correctly anyway. This presents a clear and present danger considering how many opportunities this type of environment provides for exposure to water. Between the beaches, lakes, rivers and pools that saturate this area, it's almost impossible to avoid them on a consistent basis.
A child who does not know how to swim is at a real disadvantage and at a loss to help themselves or others if the need ever arose to use aquatic skills in an emergency.
Furthermore, a child that does not learn how to swim is missing out on an entire world of aquatic experiences that would benefit their physical health. It is well documented that swimming is the best form of exercise available. It develops your emasculatory and respiratory systems more so than any other form of exercise that's available to children. The beauty of this form of exercise is that anyone can succeed. A child does not need to be an exceptional athlete, not even athletic; they only need to be willing to learn.
A child who has felt inadequate on the playground and uninterested in more traditional sports can develop a level of physical and emotional fitness that far exceeds their present condition. Rather than feeling left out and unfit, a child that learns to swim and feel confident about their ability to handle themselves in an aquatic environment will be a much happier, healthier and safer child.
As the parent of a child who suffers from aqua phobia, many questions arise to why and how this condition exists. After all, why do some children come into this world and seem to adapt to water like the proverbial fish, while others reject it as if they have experienced some water related trauma.
You might wonder why, if all children spend approximately nine months in their mother's womb, surrounded by water, this transition and evolution occurs. Parents might ponder whether or not it's their fault that their child suffers form an extreme fear of the water.
This question is not as clear cut as you might think. More and more researches are successfully tracking the origin of fear and how it navigates through our bodies and minds. Fear can be genetically stored and transmitted from one generation to the next.
There is actually a part of the brain, the amygdale, that stores the chemical memory of a traumatic experience. When the amygdala is stimulated, such as by the sight of water, a subconscious reaction is started and the response is powerful and immediate. The result is an uncontrollable reaction to stimuli that dictates how a person feels, how their body reacts and ultimately how they act. This concept helps to explain why some children (and adults as well) harbor an extreme fear of the water, without ever having experienced a near drowning or traumatic aquatic experience.
There are, however, situations in which parents do clearly contribute to their child's abnormal reaction to being in or around water. A parent is their child's most important role model. Therefore, if the parent models avoidance or fearful behavior around water, in many cases this behavior is consciously passed on to their children. Even a child who would not normally feel uncomfortable about water quickly learns to fear it as a result of either observing their parents fear of water or by their parent's direct actions intended to pass on their abnormal "respect" of water.
So then the question becomes how best to help these silent suffering children (and adults) overcome their abnormal fear of water. The answer does not lie in the traditional format of instructional swim lessons.
The solution is to provide that child with an aqua phobic specific treatment. One that combines emotional support, both in and out of the water, behavior modification techniques, interesting and fun aquatic games and activities, along with a patient plan to introduce the child to water readiness skills and then respond to their feelings surrounding that experience.
After that process has begun and the child learns to unconditionally trust their mentor, the child will become much more receptive to basic and advanced learn to swim techniques. The bond between the child and the mentor must be based on empathy, trust and rapport, very similar to a counseling relationship.
As I stated before the technical component of teaching a child to swim is not difficult. Helping them to overcome their unhealthy fear of the water requires creativity, determination and tremendous instincts. Knowing what buttons to push and when, remains the single most important factor in any successful approach towards helping children overcome this fear.
Motivating, challenging, rewarding, guiding and nurturing the child through this process requires a mentor that can set realistic goals and then have the knowledge, experience and resources to adapt and modify the strategy when personal issues arise.
Once the aqua phobic child learns to understand that their reaction to water is abnormal and that they can actually enjoy the experience, the change that occurs in the child transcends the time in the pool. Not only do they look forward to spending time in the water, but they develop a strong appetite to learn more about becoming a better swimmer.
Suddenly they are more willing to confront and solve problems independently and feel more comfortable when introduced to new situations. They no longer feel left out, behind or deserted on "dry land".
Helping children overcome their fear of water has become a personal and professional passion of mine. As a long time special needs swim instructor, I became frustrated with the lack of attention that both the aquatic and mental health community paid towards this widely diverse group.
As a certified mental health counselor and swim instructor, I designed the S.O.A.P. (Strategies Overcoming Aquatic Phobias) and Water Program. This highly successful program offers children and their families a solution to this difficult and extremely sensitive problem.
This program has allowed children to remove the obstacles that stand in their way of benefiting from an aquatic lifestyle. Unfortunately, many of our children's first-time experiences with swim instructors, or even family members who try teaching them how to swim, is an unpleasant one.
The best of intentions can tragically result in either validating a child's existing fear of water, or play an instrumental role in creating one. Your child stands a significantly better chance of overcoming their fear surrounding water with a professional swim instructor that fully comprehends the complexity and sensitivity of this process.
SOAP (Strategies to Overcoming Aquatic Phobias) and Water for those afraid to go near or in water offers dry-land counseling and teaches strategies to overcome aquatic phobias for all ages in a compassionate and friendly atmosphere. The course content, approach and supportive environment provides emotional, mental and physical learning skills for those who are fearful or uncomfortable in or around the water. In addition, individuals are gradually introduced and exposed to the aquatic environment and taught in-water techniques and skills to enable them to learn to swim.
How SOAP Works
Most traditional learn to swim programs fall short in their efforts to teach both children and adults who suffer from fear of water. The problem is simple, but the solution remains complex.
Until a person successfully comes to terms about their fear, confronts it and then is given the resources to overcome that fear, learning to swim will be almost impossible. An aqua phobic or any other person who feels an unusual amount of anxiety when placed into a non-threatening aquatic environment faces difficult challenges that will prevent them from learning even the most basic swim skills. They think, feel, react and retain information much differently than people who feel comfortable in and around water.
The foundation of a SOAP program is that it offers participants a unique opportunity in which their feelings are validated. They receive a cognitive awareness of their struggle and then are presented with a set of aqua phobic-specific water adjustment skills that allow them to wade into aquatic environment and change their lives forever.
Regardless of what event or process led a person to fear water, they all have the potential and ability to overcome their fear and learn to, at the very least, become functionally comfortable in water, or perhaps, even become recreational swimmers. However, what's important for them to remember is that they must be patient and trust their instructor, not their own feelings and what their mind and body is telling them.
Breathing is the single most important skill involved in this process. All aqua phobics believe that they will not have enough air to survive even the quickest dunk under the water. Teaching a person to breath in the water is comparable to teaching them how to breathe all over again.
Swimmers inhale in through their mouths and exhale through their noses. When we breathe on land we usually inhale through our noses and exhale through our mouths. Most people do not find it difficult to make the transition from land to water.
Aqua phobics find it extremely difficult to make this change. They also find it hard to breath deeply when in and around water, so deep breathing exercises are useful.
Another of the exercises that is mandatory in SOAP are the rollovers, where participants learn to roll over from a front float to a back float and visa versa, while continuing to inhale and exhale.
Teaching them how to move away from the side of the pool, roll over in the water, even standing up in the water, can be like teaching them to walk all over again.
The simplest of aquatic skills turn out to be the most difficult task for an aqua phobic, no matter how old, fit or successful they are in other areas of their lives.
Providing a forum for these individuals to talk and learn with others who are faced with similar challenges has allowed them to feel more secure, more willing to explore this opportunity. The presence of an instructor who feels compassion and has a solid understanding of how painful this experience can be for them, helps them to dig deep inside themselves, to be honest with themselves and others about their fears.
A SOAP Program provides them with, perhaps the only time in their life, where they will feel comfortable enough to not want to quit, to be willing to fight the discomfort and remove a major obstacle in their life.
The fact that this program consists of both dry land and pool time means that participants are able to take time to take an emotional inventory of their situation, discuss it and with the help of their peers and instructor, arrive at a strategy that will help them accomplish their goals.
The importance of the counseling/coaching component of this program can not be stressed enough. Validating feelings, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication and skill building are much more significant in this program than teaching someone how to move their arms and legs while swimming the front crawl.
It's more about redefining how a person views the world (aquatically speaking) around them and how they react to that specific environment.
The psyche of an individual who suffers from aqua phobia is far more fragile and at risk than the developing mind of a child who is simply learning how to swim for the first time. If the experience is not handled correctly initially, the chances for that person to ever successfully overcome their fear of water and learn how to swim properly greatly diminishes. The motto of this program is, "Failure no matter how large is only temporary, success, no matter how small, lasts forever."