If you want to scare the parents of a toddler, just say the two magic words: potty training! Although potty training can strike fear into the hearts of the most stalwart parent, you can feel more secure when you are aware of which issues are most likely to pop up during the process, as well as how to deal with them.
According to Dr. Pete Stavinoha, Professor in Psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Director of Neuropsychology at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, the most common two issues encountered during the potty training process are two sides of the same coin.
Issue #1: Resistance
The first of these two issues that parents usually encounter is resistance from the child. Parents often react to this resistance in the worst way possible: they push the child even harder. Of course, the child then resists even more strongly, which leads to additional frustration and more attempts at coercion on the part of the parents. How does the cycle begin?
According to Dr. Stavinoha, resistance commonly occurs due to too much parental pressure. Some parents often seem to have a specific age in mind by which their child “should” be fully potty trained, while other parents may believe that potty training “should” follow a predetermined course or timeline. Neither of these attitudes is helpful. “Parents need to understand that the pace of potty training really is dictated by a child, to a certain extent,” Dr. Stavinoha emphasizes. “The process of potty training is individual to the child, and it is only with this mindset that parents can avoid frustration.”
So what should you do if your child refuses to produce on the potty? First, of all, fight your instinct to push harder. Instead, back off and take a couple of weeks to reassess while your child stays in diapers. During those weeks, continue to sit your child on the potty periodically to keep him in the habit, but don’t expect anything more than that.
Make sure that there is nothing that might be causing the resistance, such as a too-forceful attitude on your part, pain due to constipation, or a new change in the child’s environment (e.g., a new sibling). In a few weeks, start hardcore potty training again, but this time, try to ease up on the pressure as much as possible.
Issue #2: No Guidance
Although some parents try to push their kids too hard, leading to resistance, others take the opposite route. They assume that their children will potty train by themselves when they are ready for it. While many kids will, in fact, figure out how to use the potty on their own, others need some basic education and motivation before they can successfully train.
To solve this problem, Dr. Stavinoha stresses the importance of advance preparation, including having a child practice sitting on the potty, role modeling how to use the potty, emptying the contents of the child’s diaper into the potty, and generally talking about the expectation that one day the child will be able to use the potty instead of diapers. This will help not only those children who lack the motivation to train on their own, but also all young children who are learning to use the potty.
Issue #3: Fear of the Potty
Some children are afraid to use the potty, a concept that parents find incomprehensible. From the child’s point of view, however, there are many aspects of using the potty that can cause fear. Dr. Stavinoha suggests thinking about the potty from a child’s point of view.
For example, toilets are high off the ground, have a cold seat, and make loud noises when flushing. Children who are particularly sensitive to sensory stimulation may be particularly fearful because potty training includes various smells, temperatures, and noises that they may feel are unwelcome. So what should a parent do? Never have your child do something that they are truly afraid of. Instead, try to minimize the causes of those fears. Children with this issue may prefer a low, plastic potty chair rather than the actual toilet seat. If your child is afraid of flushing, just don’t flush until after your child has left the bathroom.
With time, you can try to introduce flushing into your child’s toileting routine, first starting with flushing the contents of a diaper down the potty – a smaller step for children who are afraid to flush away “a part of themselves.” If your child is upset by the smell, don’t hold back from putting a scented candle in the bathroom. In short, do whatever it takes to make your child comfortable in order to reduce the risk of resistance.
Issue #4: Problems with Regularity
For some children, urinating into the potty is mastered much more quickly than doing the same with going "#2." Some children will just refuse to use the toilet for a bowel movement, asking instead for a diaper. At times, this issue occurs when the child is going through a difficult time or has recently been adapting to a change in environment. If this is the case, then the parent should probably supply a diaper until the difficulty has passed. At other times, however, the parent can reserve the right to say, “I’m sorry, but the diapers are gone! I guess you’ll have to go on the potty.”
Of course, that leads us to the next problem related to bowel movements – constipation. When a child decides to withhold a needed bowel movement, it can cause constipation. When a child is constipated, the stool becomes compacted and painful to pass. All it takes is one painful bowel movement on the potty, and the child may become afraid to move their bowels at all. This leads to more withholding, which makes bowel movements even more painful…a vicious cycle.
If this happens to your child, visit your child’s pediatrician as quickly as possible to see whether a stool softener is an option. This can break the cycle of constipation, and hopefully get your child on the road to being completely trained.
Issue #5: Regression
So you’ve finally gotten your child potty trained…and then he suddenly starts having accidents again. What now? First of all, take a look at any stressors or life changes that might be occurring in your child’s life. This could be anything from a recent move or a different daycare provider to a new developmental stage.
If it’s not possible to reduce these stressors in your child’s life, just take the regression in stride. Know that regression is common in recently trained children and try to refrain from communicating frustration to your child. Your child should help clean up from the accident (although you’ll obviously be doing the bulk of the work), unless you find that your child is having too much fun with the cleanup. Keep all communication between you and your child neutral.
If the regression seems like it would be difficult to reverse, backtrack. Go back to the pre-training techniques that you should have been using with your child, such as sitting on the potty at given times during the day and using encouraging talk. When this rough patch ends, your child will be ready to go back to underwear and succeed on the potty.
The most important thing to remember is that you're not alone! Every parent goes through the potty training tug of war, and more often than not, most parents come up against the same kinds of issues across the board. Remember to be patient and positive, and in the end, all your hard work will pay off!