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Overcoming Obstacles While Toilet Training an Older Child

Toilet training an older child is not just about productive conversation, determined self-mastery, and an eager desire to conform to big-kid behavior. Preschoolers’ progress can be delayed, and their parents’ frustration increased, by such typical behaviors as contrariness (frequently resisting direction, often by doing the opposite of what she is told) and increased negotiation—as well as the new fears and anxieties that often accompany their stage of development.

Contrariness springs from the same urge toward independence as the toddler’s frequent “No!” As your child develops and her thinking grows more sophisticated, she naturally longs to control more of her environment and direct a greater portion of her life.

Just as she experimented with defiant behaviors a year or two ago, your preschooler may now want to find out what will happen if she “forgets” to use the potty as you reminded her to do or if she decides she wants to wear diapers again after you have agreed that it’s time to move on. Such resistance is perfectly normal, but it can easily derail the toilet-training process.

The best way to discourage it is to withdraw from the conflict—to make toilet training more your child’s project and less your own. You can do this by easing the pressure somewhat—talking less about how it’s going, letting her choose when to wear underwear, letting her add stickers to her own achievement chart instead of providing all the praise yourself.

At first, your child may take a few steps backward in her progress (she may wear nothing below the waist at home rather than put on the underwear she dislikes), but the natural consequences of her actions—her siblings’ teasing (which should be stopped immediately), not being allowed to go outside—will soon cause her to stop.

Highly verbal preschoolers may prefer making excuses, arguing, or negotiating to simply resisting through their actions. Your child may explain away constant accidents with “I forgot,” refuse to visit the bathroom, or constantly bargain for bigger and better rewards when she succeeds. Again, the first step in overcoming this kind of resistance is to stop engaging. Your verbal child loves nothing more than an interesting discussion or argument; if you refuse to participate, she will soon lose interest in this game.

Avoid argument and negotiation by keeping the rules simple (no bedtime story if there’s no visit to the bathroom first; one gold star and a big hug for each successful session on the potty) and never making an exception. Meanwhile, you can use your child’s love of words to your advantage by talking to her about how the body works, remarking on her progress, and elaborating on how free and independent she’ll feel once she’s out of diapers.

Fears and anxiety regarding toilet use are another problem that can surface during the preschool years as children’s imaginations expand. A child who has no trouble sitting on her potty may experience terror on an adult-size toilet as she imagines monsters crawling out to grab her or fears that she will be flushed away. Even potties create anxiety for some children as they worry about sitting over an empty bowl or releasing their stool (part of their body) into it.

If your child resists going to the bathroom or seems fearful or anxious during potty or toilet use, try keeping her company while she voids. While doing this, you can help by flushing the toilet for her, encouraging her to flush bits of toilet paper, letting her accompany you and other family members to the bathroom, and otherwise reassuring her in concrete ways that there is nothing to be afraid of.

Preschoolers’ increased verbal skills make it easier to talk gently about what might be upsetting them—but because three- and four-year-olds still have limited vocabularies and comprehension, you may need to listen and carefully observe to uncover the nature of the problem. Once you have done so, don’t downplay its importance to your child.  Saying “That’s silly” or “There’s no witch in the bathroom” will only make her think you don’t understand. Instead, take the time to work through her fear or anxiety with her—explaining how a monster couldn’t possibly fit inside the toilet, putting a favorite doll on the potty and pretending to let it poop, and otherwise using words to increase her level of confidence.

Fortunately, your child’s natural urge to develop and grow will carry her through most of the difficult stages of toilet training without a huge amount of effort on your part. During the preschool years, when peer pressure and big-kid ambitions play such a major role, toilet training becomes less an issue of directing your child and more one of staying out of the way enough to let her direct herself. By refusing to magnify problems, you will find that most soon vanish and your child is on the road to bathroom success again.

Last Updated
Guide to Toilet Training (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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