Q: I’m desperately trying to potty-train my 4-year-old. She’s no longer in preschool because of her refusal to sit on a toilet and now has a full-time babysitter. For about six months, my daughter has been out of diapers for peeing, and she urinates on the back porch or in the shower. One month ago, on the advice of a book, I took away her diapers for pooping. She is now pooping on the bathroom floor and then cleaning it up, including flushing and washing the floor and her hands. (We tell her calmly that the toilet is for pee and poop, but to no avail. We can’t physically force her to use the potty.) I’m reading all the books I can get my hands on and trying every method I can think of. She doesn’t respond to incentives; she doesn’t seem swayed by kids her age using the potty; we’ve purchased about five styles of toddler potty seats, and she refuses to use any of them. She is strong-willed and has picked the potty as her primary battle. What should I do?
A: Potty-training worries are among the most common questions I receive. And I usually run screaming from them. Why? Because I really don't know why your child has not potty-trained, and I know my advice will be a hard pill to swallow for most parents. So I am not promising any fixes. I am just going to offer some simple theory to help you get to the root of the problem. It is up to you to do the detective work, know your child, and go slow and steady on this.
(First off, visit your pediatrician to be sure that your daughter is healthy and that all systems are in good working order. It sounds as if she is healthy, but I can’t know.)
Many people in our culture view potty training as a behavioral issue. (If I reward or punish or cheer or take the diaper away or give M&M's or cajole or threaten, my child will use the toilet.) And there are behavioral elements to potty training. But what is so confusing is that there are other dynamics at work that are far more powerful than rewards and punishments.
Humans don’t like to be bossed around, and even though it can be annoying to parents, this feeling serves a developmental purpose. First, young children are meant to obey only those to whom they are attached. How could children grow and mature if they are equally attached to everyone who came along? Second, children obey only those to whom they feel connected. You can see this in your own life. Say you have not seen your spouse in days, and when you finally come together, your spouse begins to make demands. It isn’t going to go well, is it? A 4-year-old doesn’t have the maturity to say: “Mom, listen. From morning till night, you harass and nag me about the potty, but can we just play?” No, your 4-year-old is going to resist, resist and resist some more. And this resistance takes the form of pooping on the bathroom floor.
Is your child old enough to know what she’s doing? Is she manipulating you? Does she wake up and plan this? No. Her prefrontal cortex is not mature enough. You may feel manipulated, but those are your feelings and not her responsibility. Rough, I know, but it is not fair to assign that much rational thought to a 4-year-old.
What do we do when we know we have taken this too far? Or when pushing creates more resistance? Or when digging in just makes a bigger hole for you both to sit in, miserably? We relent. We relax. We stop pushing. We stop finding the next best solution. We stop fixing.
I can feel parents panicking even as I write this, but look around in the world. Look at everyone walking, not pooping on the ground in front of you. Unless there is a medical issue, everyone gets there. You have to believe in development and maturity and that nature will find a way to get your daughter to put her little bottom on the potty.
Here we go:
1. Stop all coercion. Stop buying books and prizes. Just stop.
2. Put diapers or pull-ups back on her. I know you could pay for college with what you pay for pull-ups, but this won’t last forever. (See also: adults not pooping on ground.)
3. Say nothing more about the toilet. Your daughter is so stressed from the coercion that she is losing touch with her toileting impulses. Let her feel her own urges again and trust them.
4. When she poops on the floor, cleans it up and flushes it, smile and thank her. “Wow, Violet. You can really clean. Thank you so very much.” Will you be disinfecting all day? Yup. But this will pass. The point is to let her see your smiling, kind, relaxed eyes. When she sees that you are calm, she tells herself: “Mom is not upset. She’s okay. I’m okay.”
5. When she does start to use the potty, be a cool cucumber about it. Don’t cheer or go nuts or think, “AH! I am done! She is completely trained!” Say, “Violet, you wanted to go in the potty, and you did it.” Then hug her and snuggle her up. Repeat as necessary.
6. Trust that she will get to school. It may not be on your desired schedule, but she will get there. Instruct the babysitter to let the toilet training go for a while and allow her to be 4. Your daughter's only real needs in life are play, rest (emotional and physical) and tears. The toilet training will come. (To learn more about the irreducible needs of preschoolers, read Deborah MacNamara's book "Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One)."
7. Get ready for regression (peeing in underwear) at times of stress, separation and other difficult moments in her life (which come often when you are 4). This is not abnormal, and it is not a problem. Work through it as a transition and, above all, let her know that “I am not worried about this. Mommy can always wash underwear. This is not a big deal.”
8. Know, in your bones, that we cannot boss, push, bully or cajole maturity, and toilet training is part of that. Don’t listen to well-meaning people who foist advice and books on you and tell you to “nip this in the bud.” You’ve tried that. It hasn’t worked, and things are getting worse. Allow this to become easy. You have that power. Good luck.
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