The Emotional Side of Potty Training

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Ugh, potty training. Am I right? It can be so challenging, and so stressful. For you AND for your little one.


I want to help you get through potty training a little more pleasantly (Is pleasant potty training a thing? OK, maybe not. But let’s at least make it a little less torturous, shall we?)


There are a lot of good articles all over the internet on HOW to potty train your child, so I’m not going to spend time saying the same things many experts have already done. My aim here instead is to take into account the big emotions you and your child will likely be feeling during this process so that you can get through it calmly and with empathy. This is so important--not just for your sanity’s sake while living through it, but also for your child’s physical and emotional development. The negative effects of potty training can really affect their emotions well into adulthood. That’s not to scare you, but just to remind you that you are in a position to help your child learn how to navigate some big emotions in this process. And that is such a positive thing when we are thoughtful in our approach.


To start, however, I do want to offer these things to keep in mind before we dig in:


  • Patience is key. The average child takes about 3 months to be fully potty trained, meaning they can tell you when they need to go and--for the most part--do all the steps themselves. Do keep in mind, however, that they’re still likely to need assistance with things like wiping until they’re about 5 years old, and they might prefer that you stay with them inside the stall of a public bathroom until about age 5 or 6. Basically, the beginning is a sprint, but you still have a bit of a marathon to go.


  • Is your kid showing signs of readiness? Are they showing an interest in how the potty works or what you’re doing when they accompany you to the bathroom? Can they take their own diaper off and walk to the bathroom on their own? Are they able to go two hours before having a wet diaper or can they wake up from a nap with a dry diaper? Are their bowel movements becoming predictable, happening at the same time each day? These are all signs of readiness. You might be in for an uphill battle if your child isn’t doing these things yet.


  • What is your schedule and lifestyle like and how will that affect your potty training method? Can you take a whole weekend to stay at home and go cold turkey? Or, do you need to do it gradually over a few weeks? Which feels more challenging to you?


  • Sometimes people don’t have as much choice about when they start and I want to make sure we stay sensitive to that. For example, low-income families might, out of necessity, choose to give up diapers as soon as possible. Other families might need to PT because they are enrolling their child in a program that requires them to be PT beforehand. Sometimes these circumstances happen and it’s important to not let yourself feel bad about it. However, it is also important to know that if you start earlier than your child is ready or too late when your child is more strong-willed and set in their habit, it will likely require more patience until the job is done and demand more compassion from you so that your child doesn’t associate negative feelings with going potty.


OK, now with that out of the way, let’s tackle the real challenge of potty training: the emotional stuff.


These are my best tips for getting through potty training a bit more pleasantly:


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  • Stay sensitive to what your child might be feeling throughout the process. There can often be varying degrees of stress, embarrassment, lack of confidence, overwhelm, and fear during this process. Especially if there are other coinciding life changes happening, like the introduction of a new sibling into the family or starting a new daycare. Children tend to want to please their parents and do things right, but they also want to claim some independence and will. All of these emotional needs play into potty training and our empathy for what they’re going through can go a long way. Because of this, it is so important that shame and punishment aren’t a part of our potty-training process. Pushing too hard or making your child feel bad can cause insecurity, fear and anxiety that can last even into adulthood. So, use praise and positive reinforcement as much as possible, even when the process is taking longer than expected.  


  • Don’t ask your child if they need to go potty--tell them it’s time to go try. You need to do this every two hours. While your child might tell you “no” to impose their will, your child is still learning how to feel sensations in their body and recognize what those signs mean. When a child is peeing and pooping freely (meaning, wearing a diaper), they don’t necessarily know what it feels like to feel full or to have a sense of urgency because they’ve never held it in. They might not have a full grasp on this until age 5 or later, due to muscle development, so even once your child is potty trained, you’ll still need to tell them to go try--especially when they’re so engaged in something fun and don’t want to stop.


  • Always keep an extra potty seat in the car, even after you think your child is trained. You never know when you’ll be caught somewhere without a public bathroom nearby. Also, some children are afraid of public bathrooms (the loud flushing, the adult-sized toilets they could fall into…), so it might be helpful to have something portable in the trunk of your car to lessen the resistance.


  • It’s so important to make sure your child isn’t holding things in because science is showing that this is the root of many urologic problems later (constipation, bedwetting, UTIs, fear of asking to go, and so on--all of which can leave some lasting emotional impressions on your child). It’s very common for potty-training children to hold their poop in, for example, because they fear that they are losing a part of their body that they need. This is often easily fixed by explaining to your child basically how our digestive system works. Even better if you can find a children’s anatomy book that shows illustrations of the digestive system so you can tell them where the food goes when we eat and what our bodies do with it. In many cases, once they understand that poop is just food that our bodies are done with, they’ll be much more willing to give pooping on the potty a try.


  • If you think your child is suddenly regressing in their potty training, it could be emotional stress due to a big new change, like a new daycare or bringing a new baby home. Or, it could be a physical issue like constipation, which puts pressure on the bladder. (It’s important to note that your child might be having regular bowel movements and still have constipation. To rule out constipation, insist that your child’s doctor have an x-ray done to confirm whether there is a blockage or not.)  If you come to the conclusion that the regression is emotional, try making a change in routine like keeping your child in daycare for fewer hours a week or making special one-on-one time with your child and see if it makes a difference. Often conversations with your child can help too, to determine what they’re feeling and how to ease it, while also nurturing their emotional intelligence.  


If you find that potty training is especially frustrating for you, there are some things you can do to get through it more calmly.  


First, if you’ve already flipped your lid, forgive yourself. Maybe you even have a conversation with your kid where you acknowledge that you reacted in a certain way and you wish you hadn’t and that you’re sorry for that. This can be a good opportunity to show that sometimes mommies and daddies make mistakes.  


Next, if you find yourself in a frustrating situation again and you’re about to lose it--maybe your child has wet their pants for the third time today and you just can’t take it anymore--press pause before reacting.  Go into another room. Maybe splash some cold water on your face. Take a few deep breaths. Gather yourself before responding. Communicate with your partner about your rough day and ask for what you need, whether it’s help or a break. I’ve written about how to handle mom stress and overwhelm quite a bit on the blog.  Here are some posts you might like if you want to dig into this further:


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