Drowning Prevention for Teens: Seven Layers of Protection

Three smiling teenagers jump from a dock into a lake, enjoying a nice swim.

This is the second entry in our Drowning Prevention Series. Our first entry covered Drowning Prevention for Children.

When it comes to drowning prevention, the focus is often on preventing drowning in young children, many of whom are just learning how to swim.

It makes sense – after age four, the risk of drowning decreases into the middle childhood years.

However, many people don’t know that drowning risk actually peaks again during the teen years.

Younger children are more likely to drown in pools, while teens are more likely to drown in natural water like ponds, lakes, and the ocean.

While there’s no single reason, there are a number of factors that contribute to an increase in drowning risk during the teen years:

  • Overconfidence: Most teens have completed swimming lessons and think “if you can swim, you can swim.” This often causes them to overestimate their swimming abilities, particularly in open water, which can lead them into trouble.
  • Invincibility: Research shows that the human brain is not fully developed until early adulthood. This lack of full development during the teen years can cause feelings of both impulsiveness and being invincible, which can lead to teens making poor decisions.
  • Peer pressure: Teens often feel judged by their friends and may try to impress them by acting on a dare even if they do not have the skills it takes to complete the activity.
  • Drinking: Approximately two-thirds of teens have experimented with alcohol by their senior year in high school, and teen drinking is a factor in 30-70% of water-related deaths in teenagers.

Similar to drowning prevention for children, there’s no single solution to preventing drowning in teens – instead, it takes a layered approach:

Encourage swimming lessons

If your child hasn’t had formal swim lessons, it’s never too late! There are many organizations that tailor swimming lessons particularly towards teens.

Greater Boston Safety Training and many YMCAs offer water safety and rip tide safety classes.

Never swim alone

Teach your teen to always swim with a partner.

Even experienced swimmers can get tired, have a cramp, or get caught in a rip tide. It’s important to have a second person that can get help.

Encourage your teen to know his or her limits

As mentioned above, teens can sometimes think they’re invincible.

It’s important to remind your teen that everyone has limits.

Everyone has a different skill level, and teens should not try to attempt jumps, tricks, or distance swimming just to impress a friend.

Check the area

Encourage teens to choose swimming spots carefully. Prior to swimming, check the water for temperature, depth, and potential hazards.

Your teen should always double-check the water before going in and should always make sure there’s a lifeguard on duty – swimming in an unattended area is never a good idea.

Wear a life jacket

Remind your teen to always wear a life jacket in any boat, even if they are a good swimmer.

From canoes to speed boats and in deep or shallow water, life jackets are essential.

Teach alcohol responsibility

As mentioned above, alcohol plays a role in many teenage drownings – in fact, half of all teen male drownings are tied to alcohol.

While it's important to teach teens about alcohol in a general sense, you should also warn your teenagers about the dangers of mixing alcohol and swimming.

Alcohol interferes with balance, coordination, judgement, and swimming skills.

Encourage CPR classes

Knowing CPR can save a life in the event of a water emergency (and other emergencies too).

Enroll yourself and your teen in a CPR class – classes are offered by the American Red Cross and a number of other community organizations.

There’s no mandated minimum age requirement for CPR, and studies show that children as young as nine years old can learn and retain the skills required.

Adolescents have the second-highest fatal drowning rate out of any age group.

Even good teenage swimmers can drown if they’re not careful or if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Drownings are 100% preventable.

Talk to your teen often about these layers of protection, and consider including your pediatrician in conversations about safety, risky behavior, and drowning at a well visit.

This post was written by South Shore Health's Trauma Program Injury Prevention Team.

Learn more about our Injury Prevention Program.