Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Potty Learning: A Child’s Domain July 5, 2011

Filed under: Potty Learning — Heidi Emberling @ 6:53 pm

The most common question I get about potty learning is, “Why won’t my child just use the potty?” Usually followed by, “I KNOW they have to go. Why are they fighting me?” Learning to use the potty can often produce frustrated parents and frustrated children. It would be so much easier if we could just pee for our children, wouldn’t it? We understand when we have to use the potty. We may even know when our children have to go. Why can’t they “feel” it too?

This is a more complex question than you might think. Even though a child may be physiologically ready (they can stay dry for about a 2-3 hour period), they may not be psychologically ready. It’s important to keep in mind that parents have always been in control of changing diapers. A child simply may not have been given enough opportunities to make the mind-body connection needed to both recognize the feeling of having to use the potty and act on it.

For some children, the process of toilet learning goes smoothly. Here’s why:

1. The child is physiologically ready (dry diapers for 2-3 hours)
2. There are few power struggles at home
3. The child recognizes when they are going pee or poop in their diaper

For others, this process is a series of successes and setbacks. Here’s why:

1. The innate need to keep playing supersedes any need to use the potty
2. The power struggles at home may be intense and/or constant
3. The child has not developed any interest or understanding of the potty process

Since potty learning is completely in a child’s domain of control (you can lead a child to the potty, but you can’t force them to go), here’s how parents can support a child’s journey towards toileting independence.

Parent Attitude

What kind of coach or guide are you going to be as your child learns this new skill? Remember when you last learned a new skill? What did you appreciate about your coach or teacher? Children (and adults) respond best to positive encouragement. If there are negative associations with the bathroom, they will resist going there.

Be encouraging and remind children that this is a process and that everyone struggles when learning a new skill. Evaluate if they are ready to learn this skill. If you are cleaning up accidents all day long and they are extremely surprised every single time they pee on the floor, they may not be ready to take this developmental step.

Creating Potty Routines

Most children like predictability and structure. When we create daily routines, they know what to expect and when to expect it. Many children fight teethbrushing, until they realize it’s going to happen twice a day as part of their morning and evening routines. The key with potty learning is to introduce potty “visits” at regular intervals during your day. This is helpful in two ways. First, when children are given the opportunity to sit on the potty before getting dressed or right before bed, they may set their internal clocks to pee or poop during those times. If we eat lunch every day at noon, we may start to get hungry at 11:45am. If we go to bed at 10pm every night, we may start yawning around 9:45pm. Second, by incorporating potty “visits” into your daily routines, you may eliminate the power struggles inherent in interrupting your child’s play for something as tedious as using the potty!

Avoid the power struggle

Since the decision to pee or not to pee lies squarely in the child’s domain, we need to find ways to share power around using the potty. We can set up potty visits throughout the day at times when we might use the potty (before we leave the house, for example), but the child will decide whether to actually go or not. This is the most difficult part of potty learning for parents. We tend to be emotionally invested in our child’s potty successes (and setbacks). Reminding ourselves that this is a process controlled by the child can be a continual challenge.

Remember that great coach or teacher who guided you as you learned a new skill? Most likely, they had confidence in your ability to succeed, providing just enough support for you to own your achievement. Parents may need to dig deep into the well of patience during this process, allowing children to lead the way towards independence in the bathroom. The smile on a child’s face as they master this new skill is always worth the wait.


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