Go with the Flow: Preventing the Perils of Potty Training

The prospect of potty training is terrifying for many parents. They have heard horror stories of catastrophic boot camps, kids refusing to poop on the potty, and preschools rejecting children for not being trained. Through my work with families facing these challenges, I have developed an approach to potty-learning that takes into consideration what the process feels like from the child’s perspective, which is often overlooked, and that addresses some key factors that can have a significant impact on whether this process is positive or perilous. A follow-up piece will address how to deal with specific challenges that may arise in the potty-learning process.

Look at the pottying process from a developmental perspective:

  • You have no control over your child. You can’t make him do anything, including pee and poop in the potty. Children are the only ones in control of their bodies. It is their job to master these skills, with adult support. It is not your job to do it for them.

  • Learning to manage bodily functions, such as, elimination, eating, and sleeping, is essential for children’s sense of agency and self-esteem. It builds confidence that they can be in control of and take care of themselves.

  • The ability to use the potty is all about control—the ability to “hold it in” and get to a potty to let it go. It just so happens that the age at which most children have the skills to learn to use the potty (2 to 3 years) coincides with an upsurge in their desire to exert control over their world. Therefore, some amount of defiance and opposition is developmentally appropriate and normal for children at this stage, and it is often triggered by others’ attempts to control them. When it comes to potty learning, this means that the more you try to control your child’s elimination, the more likely she is to dig in her heels and refuse. This is how your child maintains her integrity and reminds you that she is the only one who has the power to control her body.  

  • Further, between 18 months to 2 years, children are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings and that their body belongs to them. They begin to feel greater ownership over their bodies which makes them even more sensitive to people trying to control their bodily functions (diapering, feeding, dressing, etc.)

  • Temperament plays a big role in potty learning. For children who, by nature, tend to be more controlling and have a harder time being flexible and adapting to change, the potty learning process can be more challenging. With these children it is especially important not to cross the line into trying to control them as the chances are that it will backfire.

The approach:

The approach I recommend is based on tuning in to the child’s experience of this process, instead of the parents’ agenda to get them “trained”. I now call it “potty learning”, as I find that “training” conjures up the idea that parents are in a position of power and have to make something happen. This puts parents in a state of mind that leads to more intrusive and forceful tactics that often backfire.

Be sure your child is ready. Signs that children are ready, which usually emerge between 2 and 3 years, include:

  • Having control over their bowel and bladder, which usually happens around 18 months 

  • Staying dry for at least a 2-hour period

  • Recognizing that they are urinating or having a bowel movement 

  • Being able to follow simple instructions

  • Wanting to come in the bathroom with you to watch how you use the potty

  • Feeling uncomfortable in a soiled diaper and asking to be changed

  • Wanting to sit on the potty, even if they don’t pee or poop on it yet

If you push the process before your child is showing any interest, she may sense that you are promoting your agenda. This can lead to that knee-jerk defiance that results when children feel you are trying to control them, thus turning the pottying process into a power struggle.

Provide whatever tools and support your child needs to feel comfortable using the potty. This might mean helping your child with getting her clothes off/on, wiping, washing hands, etc. As for which potty to use, see which is most comfortable for your child. Some children may prefer using the adult toilet with an insert while others like the kiddie potties. Giving children choices like this can be helpful as it gives them a sense of control. Be sure that whatever option your child uses enables him to have his feet firmly grounded. If he likes using a traditional, adult toilet, I recommend getting a “squatty potty” that fits around the base of the toilet where your child can rest his feet. This provides a sense of security and stability that can be very helpful for many children.

Take a scientific approach. Explain why we all pee and poop; that our body takes in what it needs from what we drink and eat, and what our bodies don’t need comes out as pee and poop. Then explain that people who use the potty wear underwear, and people who choose not to use the toilet wear diapers/pull-ups. To demonstrate, I do a little experiment with kids: I get a pitcher of water and a ball of clay that is moistened. I point out how the water has the consistency of pee, and the wet clay is like poop. Then I pour some water from the pitcher onto the underwear and then onto the diaper/pull-up, to show how the water soaks through the underwear but not the diaper. I do the same with the wet clay which is absorbed by the diaper but not the underwear. Then I make it very clear that it’s their body and they get to choose which way they are going to let the pee and poop out. I find that when you take a teaching approach and emphasize that it’s up to your child to decide how she will eliminate, she is freed to act on her drive for independence and master the skill, unimpeded by the pressure or anxiety she might experience when she knows the adults in her world want her “trained”.

A note about pull-ups: Some worry that pull-ups don’t teach kids anything because they don’t experience the effects of peeing or pooping in their pants. But if you present the pull-up as an option that gives your child choices, it can be a great tool to use as part of the learning process. You show your child and help her practice putting the pull-up on and then pulling it down to show her that she can use it like underwear when she wants to use the potty. If she chooses not to use the potty, then she can pee and poop in it—no problem. It’s her choice. You might even role-play it (which kids love), so she can have the experience of using it both ways.

Allow your child to make the decisions about how he eliminates. For example, when he needs to go and whether to use the potty or a diaper/pull-up each day. Remember, your job is to support your child in the process, not to control the process. I suggest creating a drawer that has pull-ups/diapers on one side and underwear on the other. Each morning when your child gets dressed, you let him know that he gets to choose which he wears, reminding him that underwear is only an option if he chooses to use the potty. Remember, the more children feel that they are in control, the more likely it is that the process will go smoothly. I have seen even seemingly benign efforts to steer children backfire. For example, a child I worked with had been choosing underwear for three days and using the potty pretty regularly. On day four he surprised his parents and chose a pull-up. Dad couldn’t help himself and injected: “But you have been doing so well with the potty. Don’t you want to wear undies?” The child responded with a resounding, “Yup!” and reverted to using pull-ups for several days. Once he saw that his parents were back to being agnostic and acting like they didn’t care less whether he used the potty or pull-ups, he went back to choosing underwear and the process proceeded smoothly from there. (The need to feel in control often supersedes everything!)

Follow your child’s lead. Acknowledge her interest and the steps she is taking in the pottying process. Be sure to focus on her accomplishments and not the impact it has on you. Remember, this is her responsibility. Rather than saying things like, “Mommy is so proud of you! You peed in the potty!” I would recommend responding with something more like, “You felt the pee had to come out and you got yourself to the bathroom, pulled down your pants and let it go in the potty. You made it happen! No need to change a diaper.” This keeps the focus on your child by acknowledging the steps she took to master this process. It’s her victory.

When you have a big reaction about how excited and proud you are; or, conversely, show disappointment (which is palpable to kids through your tone and body language, even when you don’t say anything), it makes pottying a relationship issue. When your child’s actions have the power to please or disappoint you, it becomes emotional and personal and can put a lot of pressure on a child. This can interfere in the potty learning process. It is one of those counter-intuitive aspects of parenting. We function from a place of logic and believe/assume that if we praise our children, they will want to do more of whatever it is that makes us happy and do less of things that disappoint us or make us angry. But remember, young children are driven by emotion, not logic, and those emotions can get in the way of learning.

Also note that, for some children who tend to be more sensitive by nature, a big parental reaction can be overwhelming and shut them down. Many families I work with report that when they got really excited about their child having pooped in the potty, their child burst into tears and reverted to refusing to sit on the toilet.

Expect and handle potty accidents matter-of-factly, without anger, shaming or punishment. Accidents are part of the process and should be handled dispassionately: “No problem, accidents happen. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Encourage your child to help in the process, not as punishment but to support his learning to take responsibility for his body. He might be in charge of wiping up pee and then choosing a new pair of underwear. When we have a big reaction to accidents and show anger or disappointment (not just with words but with gestures, facial expressions, and heavy sighs) it makes children feel ashamed. This tends to increase, not decrease, accidents. It makes the whole elimination process anxiety-producing, which interferes in their ability to master it.

Use natural consequences. For example, you tell your child you are heading to the playground where there won’t be a potty and suggest she go to the bathroom before you leave. She says she doesn’t have to go. You resist coaxing, cajoling, bribing, etc., and explain: “It’s your body, so you know best what you need. If you have to go when we are at the playground we will just need to go home.” This is not punishment and is never said as a threat. It is a matter-of-fact outcome of his choice. You might also take a kiddie potty with you, which many families do, so the child has an option. If your child has an accident, you either help him change into a clean set of clothes or take him home, again, not in anger but as a natural consequence. Then the next time you are leaving the house you can remind him of his choices. When you refrain from inserting your own agenda or expectations and are clear about your child’s choices and their consequences, children learn from experience and act accordingly. If having an accident means needing to leave the playground early, they are likely to decide on their own to use the potty before your next trip to the park.    

What to avoid:

There are a number of pitfalls parents fall into when it comes to potty learning that I would suggest avoiding, as they run the risk of interfering in the process rather than promoting it. These include:

Introducing potty learning when a big change is on the horizon or has just taken place. Any significant change in a child’s world can make him feel out of control, such as an upcoming or recent family move, a new child care arrangement, or welcoming a new baby into the family. Children don’t have the perspective required to make sense of what these changes mean which leads to feeling unstable and insecure until, with time, they see that all is still right with the world. Since learning to use the potty is all about control, it is best not to focus on or expect your child to master this skill at a time when he is coping with another significant change in his life.

Forcing. You are on risky ground anytime you cross the line from providing support to trying to control your child. One common scenario is telling a child she has to sit on the potty after she’s said she doesn’t have to go. This communicates that you know her body better than she does, which interferes with her ability to self-regulate. It can also be experienced as intrusive for many children, who then react by digging their heels in by withholding their pee and poop in a desperate attempt to maintain their integrity. On a home visit I was observing a family’s typical routines. Their rule was the child, “Shayla”, had to sit on the potty for 5 minutes before bedtime (which, by the way, is an eternity for children). When the timer went off, Dad asked Shayla if she was sure she didn’t need to go. Shayla said “yes” quite definitively. She then promptly got up and proceeded to pee right on the bathroom floor.

I also discourage picking up children to take them to the potty, unless they have given you permission. This attempt to control the process—especially when a child is in the middle of peeing or pooping—can intensify children’s resistance to using the potty. Further, you are sending that message that you know their body better than they do. If you see your child starting to strain or showing other signs of needing to eliminate, you might ask if she would like help getting to the potty. But if she says no, I strongly suggest you respect her wishes.

Punishing or shaming. When you punish or shame children for accidents or for using a diaper instead of underwear, it is more likely to impede rather than promote progress. Shame is a very powerful, toxic emotion that shuts children down. They get flooded with negative emotions that inhibit them from thinking clearly and learning from experience.

Using rewards. I am not a fan of rewards in general. They send a message to children that whatever accomplishment they have achieved is only valid or valued if it results in some kind of external reinforcer. What I think we really want for our kids is for the “prize” to be the internal sense of satisfaction they get from gaining more independence or achieving a new skill. In addition, using rewards often results in children becoming dependent on them, demanding a prize for everything. You tell them it’s time to clean up, or to get dressed, and they ask what they’ll get as a reward.

When it comes to potty learning, I find using rewards particularly problematic because children instinctively know that their parents are using them as a tool for control, to get them to do something the parent wants them to do. Have I mentioned that this dynamic tends to result in defiance and resistance rather than compliance? Further, the flip side of getting a reward is the terrible disappointment children feel when they don’t earn it, making pottying a source of stress and self-doubt.

Boot camp. I am not a fan of boot camp, either. This is a method that entails either putting children in training underwear so they feel the result of soiling themselves, or having them go bottomless altogether for several days while parents remind, ask and direct them to use the potty. The hope and expectation is that this will lead to children learning to use the potty within days.

No doubt, this method works for some children. And to be fair, my perspective is negatively skewed because so many families come to see me for guidance on the heels of a boot camp epic fail, such as this mom who recently wrote to me in a panic: “After a botched four day potty training boot camp that quickly devolved into a power struggle, we found ourselves at square one…. Unfortunately, we regrettably seem to have created some anxiety for (Louie)…when he starts to have the feeling of needing to go, he starts to have a mini freak out. He whimpers, dances around, and wants to be picked up or sit in your lap. We feel awful for creating this angst for him (we definitely fell into the "over-prompting" trap) and don't want him to suffer.” For children like Louie, who fall into that category of the more sensitive, intense little ones who crave control, boot camp often backfires. It is a method that is clearly driven by the parents’ agenda and thus leads to power struggles, increased anxiety, and often backwards movement in the pottying process. For children who are more go-with-the-flow (no pun intended) by nature, boot camp may work fine. But why take the risk? When children are ready and their parents have followed the steps above to support their children in being in charge of their bodies, most children will do it on their own.

Making toileting a social, playtime endeavor. To incentivize children to sit on the potty, many parents give in to demands for or voluntarily offer up screens for children to use, or books for mom and dad to read to them while on the toilet. I discourage this because it sets children up to think that potty time is playtime, rather than simply elimination time. (I know, you’re thinking it’s the rare adult who isn’t on his phone while doing his business.) Kids then become dependent on being entertained on the toilet and may use it as a tool to get parental attention: “I’ll sit on the potty if I can watch Daniel Tiger or Pepe Pig,” is a frequent refrain I’ve heard. Young children are very strategic. They know how desperate their parents are for them to use the potty, and they exploit it. One little girl announced that she would try to poop on the potty but mom would have to come in and read to her. This went on for almost 20 minutes as her little brother got zero attention in the next room. Put that one in the “win” column for sibling rivalry.

Constantly talking about the potty. When parents sometimes focus too intensely on using the potty, for example, by constantly reminding and asking kids about whether they have to go; or frequently reading books about going on the potty (not at the child’s request), it can increase resistance. Children pick up on the underlying meaning of your actions—that you are trying to control them. Further, the whole potty process takes over your everyday interactions, which tends to increase everyone’s stress level and detracts from just enjoying your child.

I hope these guiding principles help you get off to a good start. Part 2 on pottying will focus on many of the questions that I know this blog may have raised, or that you may already be dealing with, such as: my child is three and not showing any interest; my child won’t poop on the potty and is withholding and getting constipated; my child says he wants to wear underwear but then has accidents all day long. Stay tuned.