The “I’m not getting in the pool” and other tantrums

anxious-swimmer, Blog, Teaching Resources

We all have an emotions tank, children included.

When it’s relatively empty, we get to have fun, love each other in the ways we want, we get to make measured choices.

As it starts to fill up with stress and overwhelm, it’s another story.

In my home we talk about our emotions tank being out of 5 – it was a trick our child psychologist gave our family during our daughter’s cancer treatment.

When we’re 1,2 or 3, we’re happy and fancy free.

When we are 4/5 we become unreasonable.

When we top out at 5/5 we are completely unreachable.

Being able to identify what it feels like when you are leading up to 4/5 is an opportunity to diffuse the bomb, so to speak. Avoid the always regrettable angry lash out at family and teachers, anyone unfortunate enough to be in the firing line.

We introduced the emotions tank conversation when our children were 6 and 8 so they were old enough to begin learning, and more importantly articulating when they felt close to 4 and 5. I really wish we’d had the idea when they were younger, so I could have supported them better.

Being able to identify when our child is reaching 4/5 allows us to help them navigate their way back to a more manageable 3 or 2.

4/5 is when I always began to see unreasonable behaviours in my children- they’d refuse to take a drink of water, they’d grump at each other, they’d push me off them if I tried to hug them.

Knowing how to support our child through 5/5 is a gift to them, yourself, and everyone around you.

5/5 is unreachable on a wide spectrum of behaviours. In my own children I’ve seen it in full blown tantrums, and I’ve seen them completely retreat into themselves.

The secret to navigating a 5/5 is to accept that there’s no controlling it – we can only help our child manage through it.

In whatever way your child presents at 5/5 the key here is that they are unreachable – unavailable to hear, follow instructions and participate.

Nothing you say or do can change a 5/5.

Ideally the extremes of a 4 or 5/5 would only happen at home. In practice they tend to happen when an extra bit of stress is added, like a reluctant swimming lesson.

What to do when your child is 4/5 or 5/5 and they’re due to get into a swimming lesson.

Try not to get angry.

This is easier said than done. Angry comes from a lot of places and if your child is spending time in 4 and 5/5 then it’s more than likely that you’re being driven towards those numbers too. Know that your instructor is feeling sympathy, not judging, and is here to help.

Please do not hand a screaming child to your instructor

It’s important that the relationship between your child and their teacher is one of trust and friendship. Forcing a crying child into the pool makes this connection very difficult for us.

When your child is unreachable, handing them to a swimming instructor puts the safety of every child in the pool at risk.

I’ve seen children in this space push off instructors, even though they cannot swim. I’ve been bitten by children at 5/5 after a parent has forced them into the pool. I have been pinched and scratched more times than I care to say.

All that being said, my sympathy doesn’t lie with me or my sometimes-bruised instructors, it lies with a child who is that unavailable that they have no space to think of their safety.

Stay and watch

A successful swimming lesson doesn’t always have to be one where they get wet. If your child is unavailable, if they’re unreachable, please stay. When they’ve calmed down a little, if they can’t be encouraged into the water, stay and watch.

Talk about what the class are doing, use the other children’s names. Use it as an opportunity to create some moments of joy at the pool – something to look forward to next time.

Say goodbye to your teachers

If your child has been unavailable to swim, and have stayed and participated by watching, get them to say goodbye to their teacher. This gives us the opportunity to connect with your Little Big Swimmer and a chance for us to begin a friendship.

Ways to diffuse a high emotions tank.

When hard things are happening in a child’s life, they may be living with a relatively high emotions tank. It may not get a chance to go down as low as 1 each day, or sometimes ever.

If they’re adjusting to day care, siblings heading off to school, a sick family member or changes in the home then they may be living at 3/5.

This doesn’t give us much wriggle room between typical and full blown ‘I’m not OK’.

Ways to empty the emotions tank will differ from child to child – in the same way it will differ between adults.

Some go-tos for my own children over the years have been

  • Looking at photos – photos tend to be the slide show of the best bits of life – the best bits of emotions. Looking at photos can reduce anxiety and overwhelm. It can boost self-esteem and confidence and overall well-being

  • Cuddles – touch, especially from a parent can be reassuring and help to empty a high emotions tank
  • Just add water – for my children bath time and shower time always adjusted their emotions tank. It was a fun time, spent together, and they loved the sensory feeling of water
  • Card Games or Board Games. My youngest LOVED memory matching card games
  • Singing – a gentle calming song or belting out an 80s classic. You know your child best and what will work here
  • Reading a book. Sometimes when my children were little, and I could feel them creeping closer to crazy I’d sit myself down in the loungeroom and start quietly reading one of their books out loud. They would always come and listen, but I found if I’d ASKED them to come down and listen to a book they would have refused.


What is NOT on the list

What you’ll notice is conspicuously absent from the above list of emotional tank emptiers is screens. Watching TV or playing games on a screen has been evidenced by study after study as not lowering stress levels. They’ll buy you some time, for sure. And you’ll not see me judging any parent who uses this as a strategy to buy some sanity. Just know that it won’t work long term.

At the end of the day parenting is hard. We’re all in this together.

Swimming lessons are super important, but I think it’s unreasonable of us to expect that our child will be super into it every single week. Sometimes their little emotions tank runneth over.

When it does, try to remember that worst things will happen in the world today than a swimming lesson when they don’t get wet.


Remember, Be Safe, Be Fair and Be Brave


Love Tanya