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4 Year Old Pees All Over The House

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We have a very bright, very active 4 y/o son. He was potty trained at around 3 y/o. We waited to do it because I was pregnant and we didn't want to add to the already stressful event of adding a new sibling. It seemed to work for him and shortly after our 2nd son was born he moved to big boy underwear. We skipped the "pull ups" because he viewed them as a diaper. He did very well with the transition and only ever had one accident.

Now, fast forward a while. Within the last 6 months (roughly) he's picked up a horrible habit. He will hide somewhere, under the dining room table, beside mine and my husband's bed, the back corner of the hallway, and pee. He takes his bottoms off and doesn't wet them, then hides the mess with whatever he can find, a blanket or laundry, anything. We did discover that it was intentional behavior the day he ran out of the bathroom, pulled down his pants and peed on the bedroom floor right in front of us.

We have tried everything we could think of. We've tried talking to him about why he did it and why it was wrong. We've gotten angry. We've taken things away. We've tried making him take responsibility for his actions and help clean up the mess. Nothing worked for more than a day or two. Then one day it stopped as quickly as it had started, until these past few weeks. It had probably been a couple of months since he had last done it. Now when you ask him why he did it he says "I guess I didn't make it to the potty in time."

I should say though that in those months he was terrible about getting to the potty on time. He was always too "distracted" to get to the potty. He would get too involved in playing or a cartoon and either miss or ignore the need to use the toilet. There wasn't a single day this summer he didn't dribble in his underwear because he was too "busy" doing something else to use the potty.

My husband and I just don't know what to do anymore. It's obviously behavior that can't continue but we don't know how to end it. We don't know if it's something he thinks is fun or if there's a real reason behind it. At this point the only thing I do know is I'm incredibly frustrated.
-- Kate


This would be a frustrating situation for any parent. It is normal preschooler behavior for a four year old to be so busy that he ignores his body's signals and doesn't make it to the toilet until he is actually beginning to pee. The bothersome thing is that he is peeing somewhere besides the toilet, even taking the time to take his bottoms off, and then hiding the pee.

I'm gathering from your note that your son does use the toilet for poop, and pees there sometimes. If that is true, and his peeing in out of the way places is a "sometimes" behavior, then our goal is to make it more rewarding for him to use the toilet.

While he almost certainly stumbled on this behavior by accident, clearly there is something rewarding for him in it. He knows it's not allowed, so he hides the evidence, but he does experience something positive when he does it or he wouldn't go to the trouble and take the risk. I suspect that he's feeling a sense of thrill that he's breaking the rules, as well as a sense of freedom, reinforced by the relief of peeing when he really needs to. Most little boys experience that rush of freedom when they pee outdoors occasionally.

However, most little boys don't pee in random places inside their houses, particularly when they discover that it bothers their parents. The relationship with their parents is too important to them.

Usually this kind of behavior is seen when a child is feeling stressed, unfairly disciplined, overlooked, or over-controlled. It seems to be a kind of secretive rebellion, a way of "marking territory." I suspect your son's habit may be linked to the baby's getting older and cuter and clearly showing no signs of going away. Or it may be that he is reacting to your discipline methods.

It is most interesting that the behavior stopped for a few months, but then began again recently. Can you put your finger on anything that might have triggered it? Was he worried about starting preschool, by any chance?

Regardless, you obviously want to redirect this behavior immediately, so he doesn't start falling back on it whenever he's angry or stressed. What can you do?

1. Increase his visits to the bathroom to make it less likely that he'll find himself with a full bladder and feel tempted. Make rules about bathroom habits: "The rule is that we use the bathroom before we go to bed, get dressed, before and after snack, lunch, etc." When he doesn't like the rule, empathize: "I know, you don't want to go right now, but that's the rule. We all go right after meals." Externalizing the rule reduces the chance of a power struggle between you. Many 4 year olds are very attached to rules and will follow them as long as they don't feel bossed around.

2. Make it clear that "All people pee in the toilet" but don't get into a struggle with your son about this. You can't win it, because he can always continue the behavior, and it will just require that you up the ante to a level of punishment that would be clearly inappropriate. The truth is that improving your relationship with him will have move impact on eradicating this behavior than any kind of punishment you could devise, and punishment always undermines your relationship.

3. Give your son permission to pee outside if he wants. Tell him the rule is that people are allowed to pee outside, but only over here behind the house where no one can see and it won't hurt any plants. That way he will be able to have the satisfaction he's getting from this behavior, but in an appropriate way.

4. Help your son with whatever feelings are driving him. Your son peed right in front of you because he wants your help. He can't help himself. He also can't explain what feelings are driving him. Your job is to help him vent any big feelings of fear or anger that are causing him to act out. The best way to do that is to notice when he is close to a meltdown, and then to "love" him through it. Check out this letter for an example of how to do that. Another good way is to initiate a play session with his stuffed animals, and have one of them pee all over the house. Make it funny. If you get him laughing, you'll know you're on the right track. (Laughter releases tensions as well as crying.) You might even have one stuffed animal you're holding ask the one your son is holding, "Why is he doing that?!" You might be surprised at the answer.

5. Consider a reward chart. I'm not a big fan of star charts in general, because they get kids focused on the external reward, rather than on the rewarding feelings of "doing the right thing." More important in this case, if you don't get to the feelings underneath that are causing your son to pee all over, it won't work. However, if you do give him help with those feelings, a reward chart could be helpful as an additional incentive to help him break this bad habit.

To try this, Every single time your son pees in the toilet, he gets a star, and a certain number of stars get him something he really wants, within a few days. Make sure those stars seem really valuable to him. In fact, you might want to launch this by giving him a small reward that he values (a sticker, a small candy) every single time he pees in the toilet. This may seem like overkill, but you need to make the toilet MUCH more rewarding than those other hiding places.

6. Be effusive with your praise in addition to the rewards. You want your ''You remembered to use the potty every time today! Great Job!'' to feel so good to hear that he'll want to hear it again every day.

7. Be matter-of-fact about the clean-up. Say, "Oops, did you pee here? Come on, let's get this cleaned up." Stay calm, hand him the paper towels, have him help.

8. Shower him with unrequested love, appreciation and attention. I realize you have a younger child, so setting aside a regular daily time just to spend with your older son could be challenging, but that may be the most important action you can take. You want him to feel so connected to you that he just can't bring himself to do something that he knows displeases you.

9. Just in case he's rebelling against what feels like too much control, give him fairly constant choices. Don't overwhelm him with ten choices at a time, just let him choose, whenever it would be ok for him to decide between two things.

10. In general, you will get better cooperation if you use positive discipline, which is even more important for your son, in case he is rebelling against your discipline practices. Click here to read more about how to implement positive discipline in your own home.

11. Most 4 year old boys are feeling their testosterone. They need opportunities to wrestle, play superhero, and demonstrate their prowess in any way they can. This is totally age-appropriate, including when he brags to you that he is stronger than Superman. (Your response to that? "Wow!") Make sure he has plenty of opportunities to feel powerful, so he doesn't need to use his territory-marking strategy.

I know this is frustrating, but he did stop it once on his own. That it has restarted is the perfect opportunity for you to address whatever underlying issues make him vulnerable to it, so they don't surface in some other way. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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