Swim Team, Anxiety, and Avoiding Avoidance
Written By: Dr. Meghan Walls
As summer draws to a close, I, like every parent, reflect on the time at the beach, my kids playing outside, the days of stretching bedtimes and of course, endless swimming. That’s my idealist brain; my realist brain remembers it wasn’t all sunshine and butterflies.
It’s Saturday morning, 8:15am, and I am standing on the pool deck in what is already sweltering sun with my hair thrown into a messy unwashed bun, my faded flip flops near the ledge as water laps out slowly. My 4 year old is standing there too, but she’s not hot. She’s shaking. She is in line to start her first ever warm up swim for a swim meet. She’s the tiniest one on the team by far, proudly wearing her blue and black aqua designed suit and slightly too big blue cap, goggles resting on the top of her head where stray blond hair peeks out.
“I’m scared! I can’t do it!” she mutters through tears as they fall down her face.
Two full weeks of swim practice, and everyone knows how much effort it takes this 4 year old body to get across the entire pool freestyle but we also know this: She can indeed do it.
“You know, I think you can do it.” Inside, I am absolutely dying. My heart is racing, I feel nauseated, and it’s because I know- I can’t let her skip this but it sure won’t be pretty. My husband gives me a knowing glance but he’s calm as a cucumber, so I call him in for backup. I have to endure her pain, I have to sit with the distress. Her coaches are the epitome of kind, but firm. The head coach has to practically toss her in the water, but she swims her warm up and quickly retreats back to me, wrapped in her towel, her bright blue eyes wide. We take deep breaths together. We hug. And, then, as if on cue, right when the assistant coach beckons her to the waiting bench, her stomach hurts. She thinks she can’t swim because of the pain. We take a trip to the bathroom, and quickly head back when she’s finished.
As she gets ready, I shoot a text to another parent on the other team: my supervisor at work, a fellow pediatric psychologist, somewhere along the lines of, “I am doing the right thing, right? Practice what we preach?” She quickly responds that my daughter will be just fine, and we agree parenting a kid who is nervous is far harder than doing therapy with a kid who is nervous.
She’s up. On the rough concrete at the edge of the pool, she turns and looks at me and shakes her head no. I start to tremble as I watch this tiny child of mine, tears welling. If this was dangerous or traumatizing, I wouldn’t push her. But she’s at our home pool, safe, surrounded by friends, and I let her fly. The starting buzzer sounds…. And She. Just. Stands. There. Her coach is yelling to her, “Come on! Jump in! Mommy will buy you a donut when you’re finished and if she doesn’t I WILL!”
Finally, after what was 30 seconds but felt like 30 minutes she jumps! She swims! She is a half lap behind every other kid because of her delayed start, and as if we are in a hallmark movie, the entire crowd stands up and starts chanting “GO PIPER! YOU CAN DO IT!” “KEEP GOING!” and my mom tears come, but for a different reason- my anxiety and hers, we sat with it, and she was successful. As soon as she jumped out of the pool, she looked at me and asked innocently, “DID I DO IT?” Yes! Yes, you did, and you earned that pure sugar I’m about to hand you. She swam her next two races when the buzzer sounded.
Being a pediatric psychologist doesn’t mean I’m immune to anxiety, nor does it mean my kids are. It doesn’t mean that just because I know what to do, that I do it. It also doesn’t mean it’s easy. Parenting is hard; parenting a kid who is nervous is even harder. It does however, mean I have the tools and knowledge to approach these situations and I think every parent should, too.
So, what should you know about anxious kids? And what can you do to help?
- All kids get anxious. Anxiety can serve us well if it motivates us (studying for a test, practicing a sport) but it can also get in the way at times!
- It is incredibly common for children’s anxiety to manifest physically. If your child has a stomach ache at the same time every day, in addition to seeking out a medical check, you should find out if something stressful is happening at that time. Headaches can also be common in children who are anxious or stressed. Normalize this for your child by saying something like, “Yes! Our bellies hurt when we are nervous! It is a little frustrating but it’s not dangerous. Let’s work on this together”
- Coping skills are key for kids! It helps them to feel in control- exactly what anxiety fights against. Teaching diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation are great tools to help children who are feeling nervous. (Try Belly Bio or Calm app!) This is especially helpful for those stomach aches!
- Avoid Avoidance. We all have anticipatory anxiety, but the best thing to do when we are anxious is to face the fear. Why? Because when we avoid it, we confirm to our brain that thing was scary- in this case, not swimming in that meet would have meant my daughter’s brain got the message that swim meets are dangerous. When we engage in the behavior, we tell our brain, “Hey! It’s okay! This is really fine!”
- Don’t reassure your kiddo too much. The truth is, something may indeed be scary to them- don’t convince them otherwise, just convince them you can work on it together! Validating emotions can be powerful.
- Go Slowly: If your child’s fear is something tangible, say bugs or the dark, work up to it. Have them look at photos of a bug, touch a plastic bug, look at bugs from a distance, until they aren’t as afraid of the bugs in the yard.
- Offer Rewards: Rewards for being brave are a great idea! A key here is to give the reward after the brave behavior, instead of before (which is bribing instead). Try small rewards- a sticker for laying in their bed alone at night for instance- that are easy to use.
- Seek Help: If your child isn’t improving, or if anxiety is getting in the way of their functioning (sleeping, eating, school attendance), consider seeking out advice from a child psychologist, or at least talking to your pediatrician about your concerns.
By the way, at the awards banquet, my 4 year old got “Most Improved Swimmer” on the team this year. Amazing what our kids can do when we hold them up and let them fly.
About the Author:
Meghan Walls, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Behavioral Health at Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children, provides integrated primary care services at the Jessup Street Clinic. Representing the Division of Behavioral Health as lead of advocacy and media, Dr. Walls appears on local morning shows and authors blogs for Philly.com and Nemours Promise. Dr. Walls was awarded the 2019 Nemours Physician Excellence Community Service. Dr. Walls serves on the Executive Committee of the Delaware Psychological Association as State Advocacy Chair. She is a member of the Office of Work-based Learning’s Healthy Industry Diversity Committee and is involved in several state-wide mental health-related efforts including the Data and Policy committee of the Lt. Governor’s Behavioral Health Consortium, the Take Care Delaware steering committee, and the Delaware Accel Grant Community Advisory Committee. In 2019, she was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Society of Pediatric Psychology as Electronics Communication Editor.
Locally, Dr. Walls volunteers with organizations addressing violence prevention and serves on the Red Clay School District Parent Advisory Committee. Dr. Walls lives in Hockessin, DE with her husband, Jamie, and two daughters, Sienna and Piper.