Sports & Activities

“How Water Play Buoyed My Child’s Spirits – and Deepened Our Connection”

Swimming with my daughter and letting her direct our water play – no matter how goofy or peculiar the activity – got her out of an online-learning rut. It also helped deepen our parent-child relationship.

Illustration of a pool with beach chairs and a palm tree. Water play.

My 10-year-old was floundering. Like many kids with ADHD during the pandemic, she suffered mightily with online learning. She was disengaged, distracted, or moody — slouched in front of screens most days. And it felt we had few opportunities to truly connect.

I wanted to help her, but I was stuck in a rut of what I thought were helpful requests: “Get off YouTube and take a break. Did you do your homework? Finish your breakfast. Do you need a fidget toy? You should go outside.”

I was projecting my own helplessness and failure onto her, which made her defensive and led to emotional outbursts. It was a cycle of anxiety and control that I needed to change. It was time for an intervention. But what kind?

Water Play: Making Waves in Our Routine

“Let’s skip online gym class today and go swimming,” I suggested. Her eyes stayed glued to the screen. “We can get ice cream afterward.” The laptop shut. At this point, I was game for anything to get her outside.

When we got in the pool, I asked her to race me. “You’re just tricking me to get me to swim!” she pouted. My intentions were good, but the approach was not working. I shifted gears. “What do you want to do?” I asked.

[Free Download: Your Free Guide to Ending ADHD Confrontations and Defiance]

“Let’s play ‘rock paper scissors’ with our body, and at the end we get to dunk each other under the water.” Not the sort of exercise I had envisioned, but I went with it. I remembered clinical psychologist Rebecca Branstetter’s mantra, “Connection is protection.” The most important thing in this moment was to connect — without any stress.

“OK, let’s start on opposite ends of the pool and meet in the middle,” I suggested.

As we moved toward each other, she flopped her hands from side to side, making a big splash, and bounced up and down. I mirrored her moves and we laughed. She hummed a tune. We were silly synchronized swimmers having fun.

For a child with ADHD, controlling her impulses is a daily struggle. But here, in this carefree moment in the pool, I could see my daughter’s delight in allowing all of her impulses to roam free.

The lifeguard watched us, amazed at our game. I became paper, she was scissors. She chopped me in half with her outstretched arms, and I plunged under the water. In the silence under the water, I could feel the joy in connecting with my child, and the freedom of not being in control.

[Read: Laugh It Up to Strengthen the Parent-Child Bond]

Parent-Child Relationship: The Joy of Letting Go

I let her lead our play in the water. “Mom, you have to try this. Float on your back and go under the water. Blow bubbles and feel how cool the water is.” It was cool. Letting go of control, I was ecstatic.

When she ran out of ideas, I chimed in. I became a water Uber driver and offered to take her anywhere she wanted to go. Her bathing suit was covered in kiwis, so she pretended she was a kiwi farmer, and took me on a tour of the orchard. She spoke in a silly voice, and I asked a lot of questions. She moved slowly through the water, pointing out everything on her farm. I listened carefully. We laughed. She told me there were jobs at the orchard. I got hired.

That swim was a turning point in our relationship. Through play and fun, we found a lightness in our communications, and it has been powerful. We take delight in play, which we can now tap in moments of stress. We look forward to swimming together each week. It is a fun retreat from the stresses of daily life (with no ice cream necessary afterward!) The car ride to the pool is a 10-minute window to connect about school or other challenges. And the skills of getting ready and packing a swim bag outweigh what she was learning on the screen.

School still presents challenges for my child, but through our water play I have found joy in my child again, and in myself.

ADHD, Water Play & Parent-Child Relationships: Next Steps

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