When Potty Training Isn’t Going So Well
You’ve tried everything! No matter how many times you have demonstrated, begged, and pleaded with your toddler, potty time always seems to end in frustration. The gentle nudges of family and friends and your child’s teacher have gotten to be more frequent and negative.
The embarrassment is real.
It’s kind of personal, right? The visions of your child dancing off to preschool or kindergarten with their Paw Patrol backpack, their packed lunch, and that puffy diaper they insisted on wearing to school?
It’s totally normal to envision the “what if I can’t do this?–what if they never learn?” scenario, but rest assured, you are not alone.
The New York Times reported in an almost comical article about doctors in arguments over why kids don’t seem to be potty training early or well enough, that the problems are fairly common:
“Over the last few decades, the age at which toddlers become diaper-free has been creeping upward. In 1957, 92 percent of children were toilet-trained by the age of 18 months, studies found. Today the figure for 2-year-olds is just 4 percent, according to a large-scale Philadelphia study. Only 60 percent of children have achieved mastery of the toilet by 36 months, the study found, and 2 percent remain untrained at the age of 4 years.”–Two Experts Do Battle Over Potty Training
There seems to be a shift in the paradigm regarding toilet training from the “just train them like a puppy” mentality of the old-school camp, to the more relaxed, modern approach of letting the child lead the way. I think there are valuable things to learn from both perspectives.
My personal experience has been to let the child show signs of readiness, slowly implement steps of the potty training process to them, allowing them to master each and gain confidence, and to have a mental attitude of patience, helpfulness, and celebration as your child learns.
When you are having potty training problems with your child,
I just want to extend from all of us here at the Babienet community a quick bit of encouragement:
Do not pull out your hair!
You can do this.
And mostly, your child can do this.
The frustration is real
Few things can be more challenging or upsetting than when your child is having frequent potty accidents. Even though you know your child best and it seems no matter what you do–the accidents and/or tantrums continue. Although children potty train in different ways and at different speeds, sometimes a child seems to get stuck in a certain phase of potty training, to the chagrin of frustrated parents and pressuring child care providers.
First of all, you’re frustrated because these accidents are time-consuming, irritating, messy, and require a superhuman level of patience. Secondly, it is upsetting for your child and that is heartbreaking for any parent. Add in a healthy dose of pressure from family and friends and you have all of the components for a very frustrating battle of wills.
Some of the most common potty training problems
- Refusing to use the potty at all
- Urinating in the potty but refusing to make a bowel movement in the potty
- The child insists on using diapers or pull-ups
- The child is selective over which potty they will use–perhaps refusing when you are away from home
- Many accidents or a setback in potty training
- Refusing to use the big potty when they are outgrowing the little potty chair
- Crying or whining when you ask them to use the potty
- You are ready for them to be potty trained but they do not seem to be
- Fear of the toilet or flushing
- Painful bowel movements
- Refusing to wash hands
- Excessive bed-wetting
- Child refuses to stop playing or to come inside to go potty
- Child wants to potty outside in the yard
- Child is afraid to be left alone to potty or won’t go through the motions on their own
- Child plays in the urine or feces
- Child “hides” to go potty alone in their diaper or pull up
- Child does not recognize the urge to urinate
- Your child gets upset flushing their poop away
Maybe you have experienced one of these problems to an exasperating degree, or a few of them to varying degrees, but these can be overcome.
It begins with hope, is fueled with patience and love, and is rewarded in the long run.
Step ONE: Get your head and heart in the game.
Before we get into some tips to handle these situations, let’s talk about mindset. Both your mindset, and your child’s are at the heart of these problems. You need to know how to navigate these issues with the right frame of mind in order to make any kind of progress. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Hang on to the hope that “this too shall pass.” Remember that your little one, though struggling at the moment, will likely have a breakthrough soon. In those heated moments when you think this will last forever–remember, it does not. They will learn and you are doing your best to help them.
Along with hope is a healthy measure of patience. When you run out of patience–go back to hope and hang on!
Reassuring your child through this entire process of how much you love them, support them, and are present for them will go a long way to ease them out of their reluctance. Above all else, show your child you are their biggest cheerleader.
The most important factor here is time. Remember that your time frame for their potty training is a foreign concept to your small child. What seems daunting or even scary to them today could be a complete victory and turn around for them tomorrow.
Now, minds united…hope sprung forth, let’s tackle those toddler potty training issues with a fresh perspective.
Step TWO: Define the problem.
As with any problem, you cannot defeat what you cannot define.
What you have here is a young child who is struggling with a problem that you have the answers to solve, but for one reason or another the child is not ready to accept this new change in their life.
Take a moment to think about what is going on in your child’s mind. If they’re able to verbally communicate with you what the problem is, great! Give them a chance to verbalize what they are going through and truly listen. See if you can determine by what they say if there are fears that you can help them tackle.
Perhaps your child is struggling to prioritize potty training. Maybe it simply doesn’t matter to them as much as it matters to you. In that situation rewards-based programs can often incentivize the potty training process enough to make it a fun and rewarding adventure for your child.
If fear is the motivating factor, then work on creating an environment where your child feels safe in order for them to get used to their new routine. This is going to be the most crucial thing to do for them. A love and affection strategy, perhaps reading them a book or distracting them in some way, and gentle reassurance is going to be the best plan of action.
But until you can develop a plan of action you really need to know what is going on at the root of the problem.
Some of the root causes of potty training issues:
- They are simply not ready
- It’s not a priority or they’d rather be doing something more fun.
- Control issues
- Misused curiosity
Step THREE: Let’s tackle these problems!
Make sure that your child is showing signs that they are ready to potty train.
- They are having fewer soiled diapers and are waking up dry from a nap.
- Bowel movements are becoming more predictable.
- They begin to tell you about their body functions. They may happily announce that they are pooping in their diaper.
- They are unhappy about soiled diapers.
- They understand bathroom words.
- They express curiosity about using the bathroom.
For the nervous potty trainer
My grandson began potty training right on schedule. He had a new little baby sister in the house and although he was showing all of the signs of potty training readiness, he wanted to do it on his own. At some point an odd problem developed. For one reason or another he began to poop on the floor in front of the toilet.
It seemed this problem would go on forever much to the frustration of his parents. But they stayed calm and had him help clean up the mess each time the breakthrough occurred when they got him a more stable step stool that wouldn’t slide when he climbed up on the toilet. Bingo.
It turns out he was feeling a bit uneasy about climbing up onto the toilet and it caused a sense of nervousness about sitting there. Perhaps at some point he slipped and felt like he was going to fall in and that caused him to have anxiety about the toilet. Because he can be a bit anxious or worried, mom and dad worked to increase his confidence, and reassure him, rather than yelling about the poop on the floor. As his confidence level rose, and with his brand new step stool, he was able to be independent, do it himself, and poop in the potty regularly.
The exact opposite will happen with an anxious potty trainer if you yell at them, force them, or have an intolerant attitude to their own discomforts and fears. At first, we actually thought my
Grandson was afraid of his own defecation. He seemed very upset about the poop on the floor and wouldn’t go anywhere near it. His mom worked with him to clean it up and flush it away. As it turned out he wasn’t actually afraid of the poop, he was simply upset that it was on the floor and not in the toilet.
When he had a stepstool, he was able to move it on his own to the toilet area and climb up onto the toilet. He simply wanted to do it all by himself. Now he’s a very proud pooper in the toilet.
For the nervous potty trainer it is very simple.
- You need to take it one step at a time and allow your child to master small steps to build their confidence.
- You cannot pressure them to hurry up and learn this because they need to proceed into this new territory feeling safe and encouraged.
- Make efforts to identify their fears and set them at ease. Help them to learn to take a few deep breaths when they are feeling anxious.
If your child is already experiencing anxiety problems with their potty training due to one fear or another, back up a little bit in their potty training, focus on the things that they do well. Offer lots of encouragement and with consistent successes they will feel more empowered to tackle the harder parts of potty training. Above all do not lose your patience with them or get angry with them. You may want to include things in the bathroom area that are soothing to your child to help them feel calm. The anxious potty goer needs to proceed at their own pace, test each step of this new routine for safety (like sticking a toe in the water to see if it is too hot–they need to know it is safe!), and to be rewarded for their bravery and accomplishments.
For the potty trainer who’d rather be doing other things
Some children avoid potty time simply because they do not want to stop playtime to do so. They may hide to potty in their diaper and hope no one notices, or they may even hide outside to potty so they do not have to come inside to use the toilet.
It is important for these children to incentivize potty training to make it more fun for them. Whether they get to select a fun sticker for their potty chart, or get to hear a story read to them while they potty, or if they get to do a fun “happy dance” when they have success, focusing on the fun will help them to participate more willingly.
For the potty trainer who’s had a bad experience
Sometimes a bad experience can be a setback for a toddler. You have to give them time to understand that the negative experience will not be occurring every time they use the potty.
Maybe water splashed on them or they slipped when they were trying to sit on the toilet or maybe they missed the toilet when they peed. Whatever has upset your toddler will take a bit of time for them to overcome. Consistent reassurance and practice will help them to unlearn this bad experience.
For the potty trainer who has misconceptions
Children can come up with the most bizarre ideas about life experiences. These may be the children with lots more questions about exactly what is happening. Where does the poop go when you flush the toilet? Why does the water come out of the faucet? Why do we have to use soap? If you gently answer their questions without getting frustrated with them it allows them to figure out the world in a way that makes sense to them. You cannot force this type of thinker to do anything without explanation. They simply need to know “why.”
Sometimes children are very confused about toilet flushing. They may be very worried about where their poop is going, one that they just worked very hard to make. If you have trained them initially with a small potty chair it may get much more confusing for them when they start to use the big toilet and flush away their poop, especially if you have cleaned the potty chair for them every time. Help them understand.
Make sure that your child is a part of the process and that you talk them through all of the steps. Let them know that you are there to answer any questions that they may have. No question is too silly or small to your child, so treat them all as important things your child needs to know.
For the stubborn potty trainer
For the strong-willed or stubborn child, it is imperative to give them choices than make them feel a sense of empowerment. Give them choices and let them take control of their potty training, within reason of course.
Here are a few things you can offer your child:
- If you have two bathrooms, let them choose which they prefer using.
- Let them pick out a book for you to read to them while they use the bathroom.
- Give them a choice of hand soaps for hand washing after potty time.
- Let them choose whether or not the door stays open or closed.
- Let them decide if they want you to be in the room with them. (Sometimes children don’t like to be watched while they use the bathroom.)
- Use a potty chart that allows them to choose a sticker when they have been successful.
- Be very clear with them that while you are not going to punish them for not going to the bathroom, but that there will still be consequences that they may not enjoy. For example, they cannot sleep in their new “big boy” underwear if they don’t potty before they go to bed.
Above all, avoid developing a power struggle which will delay the completion of their potty training by months or even longer. Let your child feel like they are doing this because they want to do it, and because they are a “big boy” or a “big girl” and they will likely be more willing to show you what they have accomplished. Celebrate with them!
Another good strategy for the child who simply refuses to use the potty is to pull a little “reverse psychology,” by pretending that you are not paying attention or have little interest. Children naturally want their parents’ attention and to please them. If they know their potty successes make you happy, they will try to do it on their own.
For the curious potty trainer
Children are naturally curious about their own bodily functions, which is fine until they pee in a bucket of Legos or rub their feces into a happy face on the wall.
Encourage your child to be more curious about what happens when they use the potty. Place a Cheerio in the potty and ask them if they can pee on it. Where the pee goes is interesting to them so try to show some curiosity yourself for this thing that is so fascinating to your child.
Discourage potty “messes” in other areas of the house and have your child help with clean up. It is hard not to make a big deal out of the urine in the Lego box, but likely your child will be disappointed on their own when they can’t play with their Legos.
The bottom line with potty training is to focus on their successes, take things at a pace that is comfortable to them, allow them to have a say in the process, love and support them, and to avoid making it a power struggle.
It seems overly simple, but really it is. The rest is purely up to time.
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For further reading:
Christina M. Ward,
Babienet blog contributor
Proud mother of 3 and grandmother of 2
When Potty Training Isn’t Going So Well covers some common potty training problems and offers clear strategies for potty training help for your toddler child.