A life jacket is the safest part of the water-going attire.
OK, so you wouldn't expect your teenager to wear a life jacket to the prom, but how about in a canoe or boat? Could your adolescent be bullied or dared into a river that's too cold and swift for swimming? Does he leap into unknown waters before he looks?
Sometimes we don't know until it's too late. “When a teen-ager gets into trouble in the water and suffers a submersion, it's usually fatal,” says Dr. Linda Quan, former director of Emergency Services and international drowning prevention expert at Seattle Children's Hospital.
Is it risk-taking or lack of information that gets them, literally, in over their heads?
The basic messages are simple, she stresses:
- Wear a life jacket in small watercraft, such as canoes, motorboats and rafts, or when swimming in deep or swift water, especially when there is no lifeguard.
- Recognize that water is a potential hazard, and learn how to assess and limit the risks.
- Recognize your own limits and don't rely on a buddy to rescue you. Learn to swim well.
Like most life skills these ideas are easiest to teach in stages, starting at an early age to model and expect respect for the water. Because young children need constant supervision around the water, there are many ways to instill safe habits.
First, of course, come good examples and clear expectations. Quan, whose own children are now adults, lives on a small lake and has hosted plenty of class parties. “All the kids know they have to bring a life jacket, and they certainly have to wear it in any small boat.”
In this regard, Northwest parents start off strong. Quan cites field studies that find 90% of the toddlers wearing life vests on boats. “But over the age of 14, it drops to 50%. The body count says we're doing something wrong. The drowning rate increases dramatically between 15 and 24 years old.”
Drowning is third to motor vehicle crashes and poisoning in causing unintentional injury deaths among 15-to-19-year-olds.
One factor is the simple fact that older teens can get around on their own. By this age, they need to know how to take precautions (such as wearing a life jacket), and make good decisions without you (e.g., how cold is the water, how far can I swim).
Lay the groundwork as they grow. Swimming lessons and outdoor programs, such as Scouts, can improve their skills. “Repetition is what leads to changes in behavior,” points out Quan. “Look how many times you show a child how to stop and look both ways before crossing a street.”
Help teens find safe ways to test their limits. For instance, if your 14-year-old wants to swim across the lake, follow along in a rowboat and have him wear a life jacket. If your 18-year-old takes up kayaking, make sure he's trained to check river levels and water flow before he goes.
As in all areas of parenting, the more information and communication the better. With younger kids, that includes teaching what you know about water conditions and the reasons behind rules.
As teens get older, help them think through risks and options, says Quan. “Communication and accountability are never too much to expect. Ask, ‘Where are you going? Who with? When will you be back? Will there be alcohol there?'”
If you're not familiar with the destination, go look at it, she adds. “Then if you see dangers, you can discuss them.” Find the swim areas with lifeguards or designated swim zones and guide your children to swim there.
If you've neglected water safety in the past, don't let that stop you now, adds Quan. “We face new issues all the time – going into town, dating, driving curfews, etc. As we loosen the leash, we sit down and say, these are things you need to consider."
“When it comes to water, he may not understand about currents, underwater hazards or the effects of cold water which can cause cold water shock from the minute you go in,” says Quan, pointing out that water-related incidents are the leading cause of wilderness deaths for this age group.
Make it easy to do the right thing. “If she's boating, don't assume there will be life jackets on the boat. Hand her one on the way out the door that is comfortable and stylish,” says Quan.
These aren't new concepts, points out Quan. “The steps are the same, whether you're teaching a child not to touch a hot stove or not to drink and drive. We have to add water safety to that list of things kids need to know.”