The terrifying screams of the nanny at the sight of her son under water are still fresh in Nouf Al Boushelaibi’s mind. Although five years have passed since the incident, she vividly remembers every detail from that day and the months of battles with the phobia of water that the near-drowning experience instilled in her son from then on.

Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Nouf and her family still reside in the same villa in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammad Bin Zayed City area where the incident occurred. In the living room, overlooking the pool through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the 35-year-old Emirati communications director shares the story of how a relaxing day with her family by that very pool turned into a nightmare for their then two-and-a half-year old son, Fahad Al Hammadi.

‘It was 2012, Fahad was on the corner and the nanny was sitting next to him; my husband was with him too,’ she says, pointing to the small steps that lead into the circle-edged side of the pool. ‘He was going up and down the steps, he loved water and was really excited.’

‘I was inside and had just finished breastfeeding his sister,’ Nouf says, reaffirming that they were careful parents who did not leave their toddler by the pool unsupervised.

‘My husband came in to ask me something, it was maybe a minute, and the next thing we hear is the nanny screaming. He stepped back and saw Fahad under water, on the steps, he was literally two steps away,’ she said as she dives back into the memories.

Fahad had slipped on the pool’s steps and although the area was shallow, his head was under water. The nanny, who was sitting by his side, had frozen at the sight of seeing Fahad go under. ‘She just had to put her hand out and pull him out, but she couldn’t do that. She was traumatised,’ says Nouf.

Unbeknown to Nouf, the nanny had been a victim of a frightening swimming incident as a child herself that left lifelong scars. Witnessing Fahad slip underwater brought back terrifying memories that caused her to freeze and go into a screaming frenzy.

‘My husband jumped in, picked him up and brought him out. Fahad was crying a lot.’

The boy was under water for about four seconds. But those four seconds were, from that point on, enough to deter him from pools, the beach, or even water falling over his head. Even bath time, which was once his favourite time, became a challenge. ‘We would go into the bathtub, he would play with his toys but the moment the water came on his head, he wouldn’t accept it… he would see the bucket in my hand, and his eyes would fill up with tears. The shower wasn’t an option,’ says Nouf.

‘It even impacted his personality. He was very outgoing and playful but post the incident, to a certain extent he retracted.’

The incident impacted the entire family, including Nouf’s parents who live next door, and are very supportive and involved in their grandchildren’s lives. Nouf’s father, who had inculcated in his family a love of pools and swimming, was so upset by the incident that he suggested they close the pool or fence it off.

‘I said no, I am not putting a fence around the pool. They (children) have to grow up knowing that this is always going to be there and they need to have self-awareness but that self-awareness needs to be guided by us, they are not going to be alone,’ Nouf says.

Nouf does admit that she too became a bit “paranoid” initially and had cameras installed around the garden to ensure that her children were never in that area when she or her husband were not home.

When six months passed with little improvement in Fahad’s phobia, Nouf and her husband, Khalil Al Hammadi, decided they had to intervene to get their son to love water again.

They started to take him to Yas Waterworld, the newly opened waterpark in Abu Dhabi.

‘We took him every Friday, without exception. He would stay in the baby area, where the water is up to the ankles,’ says Nouf, adding that he would not get involved with any attraction that involved water falling on his head.

Thanks to the efforts of his mum Nouf, Fahad (left) has overcome his intense fear of being near water
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

The family decided to enrol Fahad in a swimming club, which was managed by a person who had studied child psychology. ‘I still remember the first lesson. I thought OK, he will see the kids, he will go in and he is going to forget about it. Little did I know he wouldn’t even put his foot in the water,’ says Nouf.

‘The swimming pool was like the one at our home, one big step and then a few small steps. He screamed, “no way”. And you know, as a mum to see your child (in tears), I was traumatised myself. I thought ‘what did I do?’’

She confesses that such episodes often left her blaming herself for what had happened, but she mostly kept these feelings to herself.

And so Fahad began the task of learning how to swim with 30-minute classes three times a week, with Nouf always in attendance, despite her demanding job.

‘I would sit and just watch them. There would be times when they (instructors) would tell me “Nouf you need to leave”, because he (Fahad) would turn and want me to take him. As much as my heart would break and I wanted to go and pick him up, I would try and be strong and say no, it’s for his own good,’ she says.

‘Everyday I would return and cry on my own in my room.’

Fahad’s sobbing wasn’t limited to the lessons; he’d also get agitated when it was time to leave his home to attend class. His meltdowns started to even cause a rift in the family, mounting extra pressure on the then mother-of-two.

‘I would beg my mum every day that he had lessons, mum please, please, just go there and make sure he gets in the car. My mum would see his tears and say you are traumatising him,’ says Nouf, explaining that she could not leave her job to go home and pick her son up for class and would depend mostly on her parents to get him there, where she would meet them.

‘I would say no mum, I’m traumatising him by not doing anything about it.

‘My dad would come and tell me ‘‘why are you doing this? You are putting him under a lot of pressure, why are you pushing him? He is going to get over it by himself,’’ she says.

There were times when even her husband disagreed with her on the subject, leading to arguments. However, he continued to attend his son’s classes despite his misgivings.

‘Their view was he will get over it. He will grow up and forget about it. I didn’t believe that,’ says Nouf.

It took six weeks of tireless hard work, and mostly one-on-one training, before Fahad would get his body into the pool, ‘up to his neck’. Nouf says his instructors achieved this milestone by not pushing him and instead working to gain his trust and build his confidence.

‘At first he would just sit near the pool and the teacher would play with him near the pool. Then she got him to sit with his feet in the water, and she would be in the pool. One of the other techniques they used was to get him to throw toys into the water and the teacher would go in the water and grab it for him,’ she says.

‘She (the instructor) would try to get him into the water and if he said no, she wouldn’t push him. She would say, “we are not going to go beyond the step, if you get to the step that’s enough for today”.’

About six months had passed since the swimming lessons began and Fahad still cried when it came to going to classes or getting in the pool, although not as intensely as before.

To remove any self-doubt about her methods, Nouf reached out to a psychologist acquaintance through a friend. ‘I had read so much about it, I knew I was doing the right thing but I wanted someone to tell me that he is doing well,’ she says. ‘I wanted him to see someone without him feeling that there was something wrong with him.’

She invited the psychologist to her home so she could have an informal chat with Fahad.

After speaking with Fahad and even getting him to draw his feelings – which resulted in him drawing Yas Waterworld, him there with a sad face – the psychologist reaffirmed what Nouf knew in her gut: her son loved water and swimming. However, he was afraid.

Gradually Fahad allowed water to fall on his head again. By the lesson’s second term he was included in the classes with other kids.

Soon he began to enjoy his time there. And very soon, it finally happened. The phobia turned into a love of water, just like before.

A big smile plays on Nouf’s face as she tells us this bit. ‘Now I cannot get him to stay outside the water. If he is not in water during the week, he thinks there is something wrong.’

‘My father says, “baba you have done an amazing job, I am very proud of you.”

‘I feel happy that I didn’t give up. It’s very easy to give up, and it is very hard to keep going.’

Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Fahad – now in grade three going on four – with encouragement from his parents tried for the school’s swim team last year and succeeded in making the squad, an achievement the entire family celebrated with an emotional party. A strong swimmer, he is so invested in the sport that he now collects medals and certificates for it, which he was more than happy to show us. He is dedicated to his swimming, so much that even a broken toe injury at the start of the summer would not keep him out of the pool.

After Fahad’s fall in the pool, Al Boushelaibi and Al Hammadi agreed that there would never be another instance where one of them was not with the children at a pool area, not even for a second. ‘My nannies can swim, but still I don’t feel comfortable having them in a pool without me or their father around… I can’t put that responsibility on them. In a second anything can happen,’ says the mother of three, who has ensured her other two kids learn to swim too.

Her advice to other parents who may find themselves in a similar situation – ‘Your child will overcome their fears but you need to help them; every child adapts differently. Be patient, change doesn’t come overnight… it takes time.

‘The specialists are there to help, to get the child to open up, but you still have to have that bond with your child that makes them feel comfortable enough to come and talk to you.’

Fahad, who overhears the word swimming, wanders into the room to ask his mum if they could go to the pool that evening.

5 tips to stay safe in water

The team at Neptune Swimming Academy in Abu Dhabi, Janie Naylor and Fabienne den Haese, who worked with Fahad and helped him overcome his fears, share a few tips on how you can help a child with a phobia of water.

1. Make the child comfortable around the pool via play time with toys. Let them observe other kids in the pool; do not force them to get into the water.

2. Once the child is willing to get into the water make sure you support them by holding them, and then encouraging them to place their feet on the bottom.

3. Let the child begin with exploring the pool by walking and holding on to you, and then holding on to the wall of the pool. Build the child’s confidence in you as a teacher. Do not let them down by forcing them to go under water.

4. The submerging process should begin by pouring water over the head gently. Ask them to pretend they are in the shower.

5. Practise breathing control on the pool steps. Show the child how to hold their breath in their tummy and chest.