Having Realistic Expectations About Potty Training

Dealing with Potty Training Frustration

Boy potty training
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A reader says,

"I have had it with trying to convince my son to put his poop in the potty. He says over and over that he can't do it and I know he can. He's afraid of something but won't tell me so I can help make it better.

I have tried rewards, time outs, letting him have whatever he wants if he goes, stickers, throwing away the underwear if he poops in it, and telling him to not poop on his characters on his underwear. Nothing. He still refuses. Even if he throws a fit earlier about wanting some snack or to watch a movie, telling him he can have that if he poops doesn't even work. He just gives up on whatever it is.

I'm so tired of cleaning out underwear. And not just once! It'll be three to four times in a row until he's finished. I'm starting to think my child will be the first untrained person in the world! He did battle constipation for a while before we realized that was a problem. At least he's getting it out one way or another but I don't know how much more underwear I can clean!"

The Misconception of "But, I Know He Can Do It"

I often hear parents, in frustration, tell me that they don't understand why their child won't go to the potty because they just know that he can do it. When I inquire further about how they know this, I get answers like:

  • He went once in the potty before.
  • Because he's so interested in it and wants to sit on the potty all the time.
  • Because he goes in his diaper, so what's so different about going in the potty?

And to all these answers I have explanations. For example, many parents get excited when they introduce the potty and their child pees in it immediately. Then, when it never happens again, the frustration sets in. What likely happened is that those few drops of urine were a product of "right time, right place" and didn't have to do with the child being fully ready to conquer all the steps required to use the bathroom.

Being interested in the potty also does not mean that a child is ready to begin using the potty regularly or with much success.

If I'm interested in learning to play the piano, that's a great first step, but just buying one and sitting down to pound on the keys will not make me produce anything at all resembling a song. Potty training takes practice. And it takes practice of all the parts. If I were learning to play piano, I would have to learn the notes, learn about timing, learn how to use the pedals and more before I ever played a single song.

With potty training, toddlers have to learn how to recognize their urges and figure out how to respond to them in a different way than before. The process for going in a diaper versus going on the potty is quite different. They have to figure out timing. They have to learn how to manipulate clothing. They have to be relaxed enough to release urine and stool into the potty and worry about clean-up afterward. Often, competing desires are present. Do I continue playing with this toy or eating this meal or do I go potty? All these parts take time to come together, and they require practice in a stress-free environment for best results.

Enter a Potty Training Frame of Mind - It's a Developmental Milestone

I don't want to downplay your frustration, though. I hear your stress coming through here, Mom. And most parents have been there, so don't feel like you're alone. But trust me on this: If I can hear your stress and frustration coming through loud and clear, there's no doubt that your child, does, too. And those negative vibes are not going to help him get through this at all. If he feels like you're placing a lot of pressure on him to accomplish something that's beyond his capabilities at this time, you're going to be met with even more resistance.

All the bribing, rewards, reminders, threats, restrictions and stress around potty training are only going to sabotage your efforts.

I would advise that you take a step back and try to figure out why this is such a high priority for you and why you're so frustrated. Did you get this frustrated when he was learning to walk? Did you offer him rewards or take away privileges when he was learning to feed himself? Of course not. Because these are developmental milestones that you know your child will arrive at in his own good time. Potty training is not different and if you take a deep breath and remind yourself that it's just like learning to walk or talk you'll likely find yourself offering support and guidance rather than exerting pressure and trying to direct the whole affair yourself.

It's easy to lose sight of the developmental aspect of potty training because diapers are messy, expensive, inconvenient and because we get so much pressure to train early from outside sources. It's also hard because sometimes it takes a lot longer than other milestones and there's so much more parental involvement required. But remember, too, your child is not doing this on purpose. He doesn't want to break the bank with his diaper costs. When you get pressure from outside, remember that your child is a unique individual with his own timetable and it's your job to respect that. And when confronted with another smelly, dirty diaper change, remember, this too shall pass. You can change a lot of diapers just like you can wipe a lot of runny noses. Your child still needs you right now, but it won't be for long.

Constipation Can Cause Major Potty Training Setbacks

Now, that you're in a different frame of mind and you've released your own frustration surrounding the matter, you can move forward to figure out why there's so much resistance. Chances are, with less pressure placed on him, he'll be more receptive to the idea of going to the potty. But, there's another issue at play here. In the first part of your letter, you say that there's something wrong but your child won't tell you what.

But then in the last part you say exactly what it is. You say he battled constipation for a while and that it's taking him up to four pairs of underwear to complete a bowel movement. Constipation is something that can cause some serious setbacks in potty training. It's uncomfortable at best and extremely painful at worst.

Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene calls the constipation that often accompanies potty training the D3 Cycle. It stands for discomfort, dread and delay. At first, your son experienced discomfort when trying to have a bowel movement while constipated. Then, the next time he needed to go he was filled with dread and so he tried to delay pooping, making the whole situation worse. This cycle can go on indefinitely. According to Dr. Greene, "The rectum stretches internally so that more stool can be held, and soon urges to defecate are not often felt. The D3 cycle becomes a powerful trap.

Progress is derailed. The D3 cycle must be broken before moving ahead with potty learning."

That's where you come in, Mom. Put potty training aspirations aside for now and just work on getting your son's poop problem, ummmm... worked out. How? Going back to diapers certainly works for a lot of kids, and in this case, it's what I would advise since he isn't very far into potty training.

Get your son drinking plenty of fluids and introduce dietary changes that will encourage healthy bowel movements. If that's not working, talk to your doctor about introducing a stool softener. Then, wait until your child is producing soft, regular poop in his diaper before tackling potty training again. Once you do, make sure all the potty training readiness signs are there and remember to approach potty training in a supporting role rather than as director.

Punishment Has No Place in Potty Training

Once you get on the potty training track again, make a fresh start that eliminates all punitive measures. Even things that seem small, like not allowing your toddler to read a favorite book or watch a favorite show if he has an accident, are ineffective and inappropriate ways to support your child while he is potty training. Remember that potty training involves your child's development and he is not being willfully disobedient when he has an accident.

He is in the process of learning a skill and this takes time, practice and patience.

Some positive ways to help him with this process include:

  • Giving verbal encouragement when he makes progress: "Good job, you peed in the potty!"
  • Not giving accidents undue attention: "Oh, I see you had an accident. Let's get cleaned up."
  • Enlisting his help in clean-up when accidents happen: "You can go get some new clothes while I take these to the laundry, then we'll get the paper towels for the floor and clean this up together."
  • Speaking in a calm voice to help him relax. "I'll be right outside when you're done pottying if you need help wiping your bottom."

In the long run, punishment, especially harsh or abusive punishment like spanking, yelling and threatening can cause lasting damage not only to the potty training process but also to your child's emotional well-being overall. If you ever feel like you are losing control of the situation, move your child to a safe place and call a friend or loved one for some emotional support.

There are also crisis centers that can help you regain control. You can call 1-800-4-A-CHILD and talk to someone and remain completely anonymous.