Yesterday, my four year old and I were at our community pool. We are new to this community and have not made any friends yet. A family of four came to the pool- a man, a woman, a baby and two toddler-preschooler girls. The pool is not heated and even at 80 degrees outside, can be very cold. The infant did not like the water at all and made this clear with a very loud crying, which is expected from an infant. Infants have no words and crying or screaming (as most people experience it) is the only way they have to communicate. The two toddler-preschool girls had on floatation devices that were both on their arms and strapped to their bellies. As soon as the baby began crying the stress level increased in the family as well in any one in the pool area. This is a natural response to crying, meant to raise an alarm in us that something needs to be attended to.
One of the girls was clearly comfortable with the temperature and being in the pool. The second was not. The child was being held by the woman caregiver's arms in the pool. The child repeatedly asked to go back to the steps and was very stressed. This is clearly a sign of fear. As her requests were ignored and countered with the woman and man telling her she was safe, would not sink, she had floaties on, etc., the child's stress level increased. She began high pitch screaming, which instead of alerting the caregivers to listen to her and help her feel safe, they continued to deny her experience and threatened her- with going home. The man spanked her bottom a few times lightly. The family left the pool shortly after with both girls crying, the caregivers angry and the infant quiet.
The group returned in various combinations (the man and the two girls, the woman and the one girl) a couple of times within a three hour period. Each time, the girl would become hysterical as the caregiver forced her to go off the steps. This again was met with threats and telling her to stop screaming. The third time the two arrived, a friend of the caregiver was in the pool with her child. This seemed to reinforce the idea that handling the child's fear this way was acceptable. My child, myself and other people at the pool were clearly beginning to be stressed by this experience.
A woman who appeared to be childless and I were exchanging looks- seemingly asking each other-should we intervene? The woman approached the caregiver and said that she understands she is trying to teach her child, however, she is very stressed and she needs to let her out of the pool to destress. The woman stated she is a mandatory reporter (as am I) and the other children are being stressed by this situation. The caregiver did not appear to listen and seemed irritated by an adult intervening not only on the child's behalf, but on behalf of the community. It was then, that I said I would try.
I stated that the child needed to go to the steps or out of the pool because she is too scared. I stated that I know it is none of my business, however, this is bordering on abuse. Forcing a child to do something that is so clearly distressing and ignoring their fear or punishing them for it, will not teach them what is intended. One cannot be forced out of fear. Reluctantly, the caregiver was moving toward the steps, as she was telling her friend we had no right to intervene. The woman who approached her first stated she would call the police if the caregiver would not allow the child to destress.
My child wanted to tell the caregiver he was angry. Of course, I said no. Even a four year old knows that what was happening was not best for anyone. My fear in intervening is the child may actually be abused worse when they are in private with the caregiver. However, the child was clearly screaming for help and her caregivers would not listen, threatened and punished her for expressing her fear and desire for safety.
It does not matter whether the threat (fear) is legitimate or even logical; what matters is our relationship to the fear. If we believe it is true, it is. Explaining to someone who is in intense fear and trauma that they are safe, does NOT make them feel safe. Therefore, countering feelings with logic will not change anything.
Allowing this child or anyone to experience the fear in a place of safety is the only way through it. My child stays on the steps until he is ready and TELLS ME he is ready to go in the water with me. He can have his experience and choose. Yes, he has a life jacket on and will not sink. Again, this is logic. The only thing that matters is his experience, empowering him and teaching him that he has the ability to make it through the fear to courage.