Potty Training Tips for the Frustrated Parent

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Baby girl with toilet paper isolated on white

It’s hard to believe I could be so excited about someone simply going pee or poo in the toilet. Before the moment that my first child announced, “I pooped in the potty Daddy!” I never imagine that phrase would bring me such relief and exhilaration.

Potty training can be frustrating and leave parents with questions. Moving from diapers to the toilet is a major milestone and it doesn’t happen the same for every child. We often struggle to know for sure whether they are ready and readiness can be drastically different for every child. My wife and I had one child potty trained by two years old, but another that was not potty trained until after he was four years old.

I recently had a question from Heather, a TRU Parenting Mom that was concerned about this very issue. She asked…

“I’m finding it hard to know what to do to help my son get to a point of being motivated to start potty training. He turned 4 a few weeks ago, but still shows little to no interest in it.” He has let us sit him on the toilet a few times and even done a few wees, but that’s been more of a case of lucky timing than him telling us he needs to go, because it doesn’t happen every time… I don’t want to push him, but I’m feeling frustrated that he is still showing no interest in it. Any suggestions?

Only days after this question, I read another similar question from a frustrated Mom with a 4 year old son that just wasn’t sure how he felt about going poo in the potty. If you have similar concerns about a child you are not alone. It’s not uncommon for 4 year olds to be un-potty trained or to be concerned about it.

Like Heather and many other parents, my wife and I wondered what we were doing wrong when our youngest son did not potty train until after he was 4 years old. We wondered why he wasn’t motivated to go in the potty, especially since his older brothers had been potty trained much earlier. We asked ourselves things like, “Is this normal? Should we be worried? (Silly question because we were worried anyway.) Should we be pushing harder to potty train?” Even though we had potty trained 2 previous children we had to be much more aware of the signs of potty training readiness.

So, what do you look for?

Signs your child may be ready to start potty training

  • They can walk steadily on their own.
  • They show interest in the toilet, underwear or other bathroom habits.
  • Bowel movements become more predictable.
  • They pretend to go potty.
  • They tell you they want a diaper change. They don’t like the feel of a wet or messy diaper.
  • They can pull their pants up and down.
  • They have “dry” periods that are at least 2 hours.
  • They verbally or non-verbally announce they are having a bowel movement. (This could mean telling you when they are going or things like retreating to squat alone or to a place of their own to do it.)
  • They know basic potty words. (Pee, poop, toilet/potty, etc.)

What if they’re ready according to the signs, but just don’t seem interested?

In a recent article I discuss how sometimes our kids don’t lack motivation but simply lack skills or ability. The first thing to remember is that just because your child seems to be physically and mentally ready, they may not be emotionally ready yet. When a child shows little interest or is resistant to your invitations they may not be emotionally ready yet. There may be something that they need to resolve before they move forward. However, even if our child does not yet show interest spontaneously we can and should make invitations or introduce them to the concepts of potty training regardless. There reluctance simply means it is important to be sensitive to their reactions and respond in ways that promote TRU objectives (Teaching, Relationship and Upgrading ourselves).

5 Tips to Help the Potty Training Process

1. Relax! Don’t blame yourself, worry or jump to the worst possible conclusions:

My youngest son was just over 4 years old when he finally potty trained. It’s not abnormal or anything to worry about, but I know it can be frustrating. The thing that was most frustrating to me was that I knew that my son understood and had the body awareness to do it but, like many kids, he had no interest. My older 2 sons had potty trained at younger ages so we wondered when it would happen with our third. The great thing is that there are some advantages to potty training later. A 4 year old communicates much better than a 2 year old and they have better strength, control and body awareness.

2. Make sure everything is working right:

One of my son’s deterrents to going poo on the toilet was that it was hard and it hurt. He was constipated and pooping was already difficult for him, but was even more difficult sitting on a toilet. My wife worked with his diet and supplemented to soften his stool and make his bowel movements easier. This isn’t something to worry or fret about, just something to be aware of. Watch and make sure your child is regular or watch for other signs of constipation. If you want to make sure everything else checks out physically, take them to see your doctor. A doctor can make sure your child is not experiencing any infections or problems with muscle control or sensation. This allows you to have confidence that there isn’t some physical limitation holding them back. Once my son was going more regularly and with less discomfort, he became much more interested in going in the toilet.

3. Make frequent invitations, but don’t be pushy:

Truth is that if you let our child lead the process, they will probably figure it out at some point. After all, I don’t know many kids that lack potty skills at age 12. However, there are things that we can do to move the process along in a kind, gentle way if we feel it is needed. It can be helpful to schedule opportunities to ask them if they need to go or even to put them on the toilet for a short period of time. Because our son was irregular and often constipated he had a hard time distinguishing feelings to go. Scheduling time can give a child the chance to stop and recognize the urge to go. We invited our son to sit on the toilet before naps and bedtime. Don’t make a big deal of accidents. They will happen. Something to know and understand about potty training is that kids get a lot of personal joy from learning this new skill. It gives them a sense of independence and personal strength. I’ve seen it in every one of my kids.

4. Give them some power. Set the stage but give them the power to choose:

When my 4 year old was ready to start learning to go on the toilet, he was good at recognizing his urge to urinate, but had an aversion to sitting on the toilet to go poop so we started by inviting him to wear underwear during the day. We told him he would get to” wear his new underwear and could go pee in the toilet or outside whenever he wanted (we live out in the country and don’t mind if he peed outside. He loved it.). We then told him that if he needed to go poop he could come tell us and we would put a diaper back on him if he wanted or he could choose to go on the toilet if he wanted. This worked great! He learned that he recognized and could control his pee and poop after a few accidents. He began asking to put the diaper on when he needed to go number 2, and sometimes voluntarily got on the toilet. One day we heard the infamous, “I’m done!” coming from the bathroom and he had gone on the toilet and he never looked back since that day.

5. Teach indirectly:

If your child doesn’t seem to initiate or show the interest in potty training you were anticipating, look for opportunities to teach the concepts and skills they need for going to the potty. Let them observe an older sibling, practice sitting on the potty for fun, or read them potty books such as Dinosaur Vs. the Potty or The Potty Book for Girls or Boys. You can look up “potty books” on Google or Amazon and find more potty books than you could read in your life time.

Keep in mind that every child is different and there is no one right way or even one right time to potty train your child. There are many who choose specific, very formal and intensive potty training programs that help them potty train in days or weeks, even at very young ages. Others let their child lead the way. I personally do not believe one is right or wrong, but I always evaluate whether the method is TRU or not. Does it meet all of the criteria of the principles of TRU Parenting?

  • Does it teach the child the potty skills they need to learn?
  • Do my actions and teaching build the relationship with my child?
  • Finally, does how I act and interact with my child allow me to personally upgrade myself and maintain kindness and personal integrity?

Don’t worry, be happy!

To answer the question of the article, don’t worry so much if your 4 year old is not potty trained yet. It’s not your fault or even your child’s fault for that matter. Don’t be worried, just be TRU. I’m confident that each and every parent reading this is doing so out of concern for a child that they love very much. Because of that, you have a special ability to know and respond to your individual child in a customized manner. Your child will let you know when they are ready. Trust your gut and silence the silly voice in your head that keeps telling you, “your child will never be potty trained.” If you find they just “can’t” do it yet or they resist so badly that it’s causing major relational issues, back off and be patient a little longer. Sometimes they need a little more development. Sometimes they just need a little gentle nudging or guidance. You get to decide when and how much. If you keep the TRU principles in your mind and act accordingly, you will find that your child will be potty trained before you know it and it will be the perfect time for them.

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