Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old son is terrified of getting water on his face. How can we help him get over his fear?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My five-year-old son hates water on his face. He won't shower, but will have a bath, until we try to wash his hair, then he jumps up shouting and crying anxiously. He has never liked it but it has become worse since he started school last September. When we ask him why he is so scared he says that he thinks he will disappear. We've explained this can't happen but to no avail. We are an otherwise happy family and have one other son aged eight who is wonderful. How can we help him overcome his fears of having water on his face?
David replies: There are lots of children who hate getting water on their face, near their eyes, or even on their hair. Sometimes it is off the back of an unpleasant experience, like, perhaps getting some shampoo in their eye, or the water being too hot or cold and shocking them a bit, or even an experience of having their breathing blocked for a moment by water in their face.
While you don't mention any particular trigger for your son's reluctance to let water on his face, you do mention that it has always been there, but that his anxiety about it seems greater since he started school.
It may be that his natural disinclination to have water on his face has been exacerbated by any anxiety or stress associated with starting school. Since he already has some small amount of anxiety anyway, that may act as a trigger for the release of other, perhaps bigger stresses of school, such that it all comes out at bath time.
It might also be the case that bath time is an occasion when you are fully available to him without distraction by the rest of the family. If this is the case, then it may also subconsciously be the time when he feels you are most receptive to hearing, or experiencing his fears.
I think you can take a twin-track approach to dealing with the water on his face. Creating other one-to-one times with him, where you can talk more about school, about friends and about the general ups and downs of his days will be good. This might provide him with a forum to process any stresses or fears that he has, such that they don't then add to his specific dislike, or fear, of water on his face.
With regard to the specific distress he feels about the water, I don't think there is much benefit to trying to ask him about it, as he is very young and is unlikely to be able to really describe it. His stated fear of "disappearing" does seem irrational, and it is almost impossible to tell what meaning that has for him. It might be better to simply acknowledge that he hates the water on his face and, for the time being to minimise that or work around it.
You could also see if he is interested in doing some experiments to see if he can learn to deal better with the water. You have already seen that changing the environment (being at the pool) makes a big difference as he seems to cope better with the water that might get on his face while there. I wonder, for example, if he wears goggles while swimming and if that helps to reduce his fear?
If he is up for it, you can then spend a bit of time, while he is in the bath, doing a bit of what is technically called graded exposure, but will be presented as "experiments". So, using a little plastic cup you can get him to fill it with some bath water and then pour small amounts onto various parts of his face, maybe even allowing him to do this himself.
This allows you and him to work out which parts of his face he feels most protective of, or most reluctant to have near water. You may discover in this process that he hates the water near his eyes or his mouth or nose. This might also point to other ways to help him by maybe using goggles at hair-washing times, or using a mask and snorkel to ensure, and reassure him, that he can breathe fully while the water is pouring over his head.
As a parent, this may seem a bit tedious. But, by acknowledging and validating his fear, then supporting him in facing it, while giving him some sense of control in the process, you help him to develop life-long resilience and coping strategies.
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