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Potty Training Power Struggles with Toddler who won't go

Dr. Markham,

My daughter is 33 months old. She has attended daycare from the time she was 4 months old, with the same teachers this whole time. It is a loving environment. When she was 30 months of age, we went to underwear, per my daughter's request. But it def didn't seem to be working. She would just sit, and wet herself, although she did notice that she was going. Then we had some biting incidents, which lasted the rest of the week. All considered, seemed like this was all too much and we backed off, back to diapers. Just put underwear over her diapers.

Well, 3 weeks ago, she went on her potty in the morning and "demanded" to wear underwear. She had some accidents, but for the most part seemed to do okay. The one thing she's always been okay with is naps and morning. She was always dry.

But lately, she seems doesn't want to go potty if we ask, then she'll go in her pants. BM's are almost always in her underwear now. Not on the potty. My husband wants to put her back in diapers because of the accidents. I don't know what to do. I was thinking of trying to talk with her, but she's not even 3. I don't want her to have issues.

If we try to take her regularly to the potty, as in, which one do you want to use, she can totally fight and argue about using the potty, then she'll turn around and go. I try not to fuss, just say, well, it's time. And I thank her for trying if she doesn't want to. I'm thinking that we jumped into it prematurely, but now that we've been in underwear for 3, almost 4 weeks, it may be not good to go back to diapers at this time. I just want to make it easier for her. My husband believes that this is too difficult, she has accidents daily and she's just not ready. How do we go back?

Dear Lisa,
What a frustrating situation for you and your husband -- and your daughter, too!

You'll be interested in this info from my friend Elizabeth Pantley, who wrote the No Cry Toilet Training Solution (which I recommend):

♦ More than 80% of children experience setbacks in toilet training. This means that what we call “setbacks” is really just the usual path to mastery of toileting. It is not unusual for kids to have accidents on a daily basis.

♦ It takes three to twelve months from the start of training to daytime toilet independence.

♦ If your child has temper tantrums or sheds tears over potty training, or if you find yourself getting angry, then stop training. Review your training plan and then try again, using a slightly different approach if necessary, in a month or two.

It sounds like your daughter wasn't really ready to give up diapers at 30 months, which is not unusual. Kids often become enamored with underwear before they are actually ready to train. I can see why you thought she was ready, given that she is always dry in the morning and after naps. That indicates to me that her lack of readiness is psychological, not physical.

But psychological readiness is also important, because kids need to be really motivated, for themselves. A two year old can too easily get into a power struggle with parents about potty training just to feel a sense of agency. And interrupting their play to use the potty takes real self discipline.

You don't say whether she has accidents at school also. If she doesn't, then she really is ready, and what's getting in her way is either parental attitude or the difference in routine at home. Re attitude, it's critical to keep this process positive. Re routine, you need an actual potty-training plan, such as the one on the Toddler section of this website, and to focus on the process completely, with a routine for toilet visits.    If you don't have rugs, your fastest bet would be to move her to a naked bottom at home, and really focus on positive toilet training during the warm months.

BUT if she is having accidents at school also, then she simply isn't ready. OR she is ready, but somehow something happened after the first couple of weeks of toilet training that sent her backwards. It could have been that she had an accident at school and they mishandled it and were negative. Or maybe that happened at home. Research on this shows that negativity when kids have accidents always results in more accidents. Or maybe the trigger for her backsliding was something so small that you wouldn't have noticed it.

The real issue here is that she doesn't want to go when you ask. That sounds like a power struggle that needs to be defused.

My view on this is that fights with your child about her body are fights you will never win. She has to WANT to use the potty. And if the pressure feels too great, she won't even try. So your instinct (and your husband's) about this being too much pressure for her when she is not even three yet, and wanting to go back to diapers, sounds right to me.

Except, of course, that you don't want her to feel ashamed or blamed. If you completely back off potty training, especially when she did well for awhile, you are giving her the message that she failed. In actuality, she hasn't failed, she has stalled, and you can help her through this by decreasing the pressure of your own reactions.

I think your answer is to move her to pullups instead of diapers, especially because she really is close, given that things went well for the first two weeks of toilet training. In other words, you should still read up on potty training so you have a plan, and you follow that plan and focus on training, but if she has accidents, you really can be very low-key about it because she's wearing pullups.

I would buy some pullups, if you don't have any, without mentioning it. Then, in the morning, say "Oops, we don't have any clean underwear, we have to do the wash. But that's ok, you can wear pull-ups today." Still act like she is going to use the potty, of course. Take her to the potty, as in "Ok let's use the potty now before we get in the car" but if she won't, I certainly wouldn't fight with her. I would just use the toilet yourself in front of her and say "We always try before we get in the car. Some day you'll be ready, too."

If she refuses to use the potty over and over, then it has turned into a power struggle. You can ask her if she would rather wear diapers or use the potty. If she chooses diapers, then go back to diapers and try again in two months.

I should add that I wouldn't expect her to get completely trained while wearing pull-ups; most kids don't because they are so much like diapers. But it is a good way to begin potty training, and to defuse the situation and sidestep what is otherwise turning into too loaded a situation.

I wish you luck. Let me know how it goes!

Dr. Laura

Dear Dr. Laura,

After I received your reply, I spoke to my husband again re: his responses to her accidents, and also suggested to Meghan that maybe she would rather go back to diapers for a little while.

One, or both seemed to do the trick. Within the next week, she's been going like a champ, no more accidents, or rare ones since then. The suggestion to go back to diapers seemed to make her think, and push her toward the potty. It was done in a good, positive way. Thank you so much!

And thank you for your response. I was really beginning to feel so bad, so frustrated, so wrong in how things were being done. My self-doubts were getting to be too much too, which I'll bet Megs picked up on.

So thank you so very much for your help.


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Jessica commented on 12-Jan-2010 10:47 AM
I would love it if someone could answer this question for me. This little girl sounds a lot like my 2.9 toddler boy... The first few days of potty training, he would even say he had to go. Now, 8 weeks later, BMs in the pants every time and sometimes fights me about the potty. Daycare complains that he won't ask to go potty and he won't ask at home either, despite encouragement and treats. On the other hand, daycare says going back to pullups or diapers is a step backward that will totally confuse him. I sort of like the idea of giving him that choice, but I am not sure he has the reasoning capacity to make such a mature decision as this little girl did. Should I listen to his daycare or go back to pullups? It's not like me to be wishy washy on decisions and I feel torn.
Anonymous commented on 29-Aug-2010 08:50 AM
My 33 month old daughter was having a real easy time of it or so we thought. She was having great success at day care for several months and at home she would agree most of the time to try. We went into the summer and her day care ended and so did her willingness to potty train. I found myself involved in a complete power struggle, that I was obviously loosing. A social worker friend of mine told me to lay off and not even talk to her about it. Just to put her back in diapers and not pressure her. We did this and she is happy but I don't see any interest on her part in returning to the potty. After about a month I brought it up again and she just gets upset. Help!!!!!
Heather commented on 25-Sep-2010 05:18 PM
I am the parent of 3yr old twins. One boy and one girl, they have been in daycare since they were four months old. At around their third birthday, my son decided 123 no more pull ups. Within 2months he was daytimed trained with accidents once in awhile. Now my daughter, who physically shows readiness constantly fights with my husband and I to use the potty and her teachers. She is still learning BM becuase she has constipation problems and has to take Miralax everyday. However, she is an expert at pee pee, she has proven that both at home, her previous daycare and her pre-school sees it. She admits and tells us when she soils and says " I did not want to" when we ask why she did not want to go to potty. This has become very frustrating, We have given her the choice to go back to pull ups but if we do, she can not attend her pre-school classroom. We has to make her aware of this so she could make a choice. She is adimit that she is not a babay and will not wear pull ups or diapers. Her school has resorted to these degrading plastic pants over her underware. I am frustrated to the hilt. I am masters level clinical social worker and feel like I should be handling this. I am sooo tiereds of the fights. CT MOM
Anonymous commented on 03-Dec-2011 12:42 AM
I would like a comment from your readers. I have a 22 month old who I have been potty training since she was 12 months old. I realize she won't be fully trained for some time but I wanted to get her used to the idea. She has been really good about sitting
on the potty (not always) going whenever I put her on, or her daycare provider puts her on. She was showing signs of increased consistency on the potty, even if she was still going in her diaper in between trips to the potty. A few weeks ago I needed a stool
sample for a medical test. It needed to be seperate from her pee. I knew in the morning she usually pees before I get her up but she often went poo when I put her on the potty so I put saran wrap accross the toilet seat, put the regular seat down and then
put her potty seat on top as per usual. She took one look at the saran wrap and made a fuss. I removed it and told her it was ok. Ever since she won't got for me / anyone else on the toilet (either bathroom) at home but she will go at daycare without incident.
I have been trying to be patient and not too concerned about it but we have had a few power struggles when I have tried to get her to just stand by the potty, or to put the potty seat on the toilet. She just cries and say "me no like potty" over and over.
If anyone has suggestions of how to handle this situation I would appreciate it.

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