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Child Afraid to Use Toilet

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Hi Dr. Laura,

I've been struggling with an issue involving my 3 and half year old son and potty training - he has been potty trained since his 3rd birthday, but about 5-6 months ago, he no longer poops on the potty. He waits until he's in the comfort of his bed with a diaper on to go number 2. My family physician said that he may have been constipated once and it scared him back to the pre-potty days. I have tried literally EVERYTHING to get him to be comfortable with pooping on the potty again. I know his schedule, so we give it a try every night before bed. He'll read, we'll do flash cards, sing songs, hold hands. I'll leave the room to give him privacy. I have put a diaper under the potty seat, no go. I have taken away favorite toys, no go. I have enticed with ice cream parties, lollipops, and Michael Jackson dance offs. Nothing. He gets so close and then starts to cry - says it hurts.. and then won't go.

My final attempt is to try a child-safe laxative or stool softener to ease any tension or pain he may have. Do you have any suggestions or helpful tips - anything that I haven't tried yet, to help with this dilemma? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,



Many parents I have worked with have solved this exact problem by getting the child laughing. That relaxes all the fear. Since he is 3.5, he is old enough that rewards might also help, but it sounds like those have not been sufficient by themselves to overcome the fear. The laughter probably will be. Here's an article about this, not written by me, but by Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand parenting, that should behelpful.

I would also concur with using a stool softener, just to be sure there is absolutely no pain.

Finally, here is something I wrote about clients of mine who worked with their child to help her overcome her fears of using the potty.

Hayley's parents decided to address her fear directly. They began to use EFT and relaxation exercises with her every night to help her relax. They made time for daily roughhousing and wrestling to help her gain physical confidence. They played physical games like bucking bronco that got her shrieking with laughter. Finally, they decided to work directly to help their daughter work through her pervasive fears, beginning with the toilet.

First, her parents helped diffuse some of Hayley's anxiety about the toilet by “playing” with the issue. They dropped all pressure on Hayley to use the toilet, and instead became experts in “bathroom” humor, making up silly songs, letting Hayley choose breakfast cereals to put in the potty for them to pee on, and regularly joking about bodily functions to get Hayley laughing. Then, they began to pretend they were too anxious about falling in the toilet to use it, and let Hayley, giggling, reassure them. They would dance around outside the bathroom door, pretending needed to use the toilet but were too afraid. After a few weeks of this, her parents chose a weekend with no other obligations, and explained to Hayley that they were going to help her learn to use the toilet, so this would be a weekend without diapers.

Hayley's anxiety blossomed into full-blown panic. She cried, screamed, tantrummed, sweated, struggled, and hid under the bed. Her parents helped each other stay calm and patient, each reminding the other that they weren't traumatizing their daughter, but helping her to surface and excise some fear that was old, deep and debilitating. They stayed with Hayley, reassuring her that they would always keep her safe, that her body knew how to do this. Finally, with her mother holding her tightly, Hayley used the toilet. By the end of the weekend, she was telling her parents when she needed to go to the bathroom and climbing onto the toilet without fear.

A success story? Absolutely. But the best part is that Hayley became more relaxed in general, and some of her other fears disappeared on their own. When we give anxious children a chance to work through the past terror stored in their bodies, we help them move towards more courage and freedom in all aspects of their lives.

I hope that's helpful. Good luck!
Good luck!

Dr. Laura Markham

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