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Potty Training Power Struggles with Toddler who won't go

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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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