Water Safety Tips for Older Kids and Teens

When summer arrives, we’re all looking for ways to cool off. Being outdoors is a great way to be active and enjoy quality family time. But it’s important to remember that the risk of drowning is very serious, even for older children and teens.

Drowning is the 5th leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14 and 7th in children 15 and older. And drowning is often quick and silent.

The good news? Drownings are preventable. Here are some ways to keep your child safe.

General water safety tips for kids and teens

Children who have finished a swim program and are strong swimmers are still at risk for drowning. The risk for drowning decreases after age 4 but increases again during the teenage years as children become more confident.

“Teens are more likely to drown because of risk-taking behavior, and we know that peer pressure plays a role in that,” says Sarah Lazarus, DO, pediatric emergency department physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She says teens may feel pressured into swimming or boating at night—or under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

With that said, it's always a good idea to enroll your child in a swim program with a certified instructor from a young age. “By the time children reach school age (around age 6), they should be capable swimmers,” says Dr. Lazarus. “There’s no reason that any child, even those with developmental disabilities, can’t learn to swim,” she adds. She notes that kids with an underlying medical disorder, such as autism or epilepsy, are at a higher risk of drowning, so it’s even more important for them to take swim lessons.

Here are some more safety rules to keep in mind:

  • Choose safe areas to swim, like places with a lifeguard on duty.
  • Keep an eye on your child or teen. Dr. Lazarus suggests this rule of thumb: Once a child can swim 50 meters or more without stopping, it’s OK to be within eye’s reach of your child. You should stay within arm’s reach of children who aren’t strong swimmers.
  • Get your teen trained in CPR—they could save a life.
  • Do not make older kids responsible for younger siblings around water. (Even if they are a strong swimmer.)
  • Let your teen know to never go into the water after drinking alcohol or using drugs.
  • Talk to your child about the importance of being open about their swimming skills. There’s no shame in not knowing how to swim, and honesty could be lifesaving information.
  • Educate your child on what to do if there are storms. They should get out of the water immediately, especially if there is thunder or lightning.

Pool safety tips for kids and teens

While general water safety tips apply to all types of water, the following tips are helpful for when you head to the pool.

  • Make sure your child checks the depth of the water before entering.
  • Tell kids and teens to always enter water feet first.
  • Encourage your child to swim with a buddy and to never swim alone.
  • Keep a watchful eye on teens and how they play in the water. It only takes a second for a teen to be injured or hit their head, and it could be dangerous if no one notices.

Water safety tips for the beach, lake, river or creek

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens are 3 times more likely to drown in natural bodies of water than children ages 5 to 9. So in addition to general water safety, there are some extra things to keep in mind when swimming in natural bodies of water. Here’s how to keep your child safe:

  • Avoid beaches and rivers with large waves or dangerous undertows. Keep an eye out for any swim warnings posted near the entrance of public beaches.
  • Tell kids and teens to enter the water feet first to help prevent spinal injuries.
  • Make sure your child is aware of rip currents and other obstacles like tree stumps and debris that may be in the water.
  • Set a “checkpoint” and check-in times for meeting in case you get separated.

Boating guidelines for older kids and teens

As your child gets older, you may not always be with them every time they’re out and about. So it’s important to encourage them to adhere to proper safety rules and regulations, especially when out on a boat or other watercraft. Here are some crucial things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t let teens boat alone. Even if your teen has taken boater education (required by Georgia law), a parent should always be present while boating.
  • Wear a life jacket. Every boat passenger should always wear a U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket. In fact, it’s the U.S. Coast Guard’s guideline that children under age 13 always have a life jacket on when in a moving boat. The life jacket should not ride up above their ears. If it does, it’s too big. When they’re on the boat, fasten all straps and zippers.
  • Wear helmets during motorized water sports like wakeboarding, water skiing or tubing. And designate a spotter (not the driver) to keep an eye on the person in the water.
  • Do not participate in water sports at night. Make sure visibility is good before wakeboarding or participating in other water sports.
  • Refrain from using alcohol or other substances. Nearly one-third of all recreational boating fatalities involve alcohol, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Using alcohol or drugs affects your judgment, vision, balance and coordination. Make sure you have a conversation with your child about these risks.

Following water safety rules may save your child’s life

As parents and caretakers, you are your child’s best protection. Always supervise your child or encourage them to use the buddy system when they’re not with you.

Remind your child that they should never drink alcohol or use drugs while swimming. And make sure to have a conversation about their comfort level with swimming.

“There’s no shame in not knowing how to swim,” says Dr. Lazarus. “But it’s never too late to learn. If you are a parent who doesn't know how to swim, consider enrolling in swim lessons with your child."

If your child does not know how to swim, give them the courage and confidence to be open about their skills when they’re away from home. Honesty could be a lifesaver when your child is visiting a friend’s home, attending a party or going on a trip.