Ask Rebecca: my boundary-pushing toddler keeps refusing the potty

Parenting can require more patience and empathy than we ever imagined says Rebecca Mottram.  Your daughters potty refusal means she needs your help to be in control and find the solution.

Dear Rebecca,

My daughter is 17mo and normally mastering the potty well. She has become very verbal and often tells me when she has to go or goes to the potty by herself. However, there is a part I’m not proud of. I know she has to wee when 3 hours have passed without one so I gently remind her to go. I tell her we’re going to the potty, she can choose her favorite book to read or game to play with me, we will call daddy after the wee… I let her know that it needs to be done and I give her lots of motivation. This is where procrastination normally starts. She either completely refuses the potty or sits there for 20 min. and does nothing. I then give up and go to another room to give her privacy. She will follow me a moment later and within 2 min. will do a massive pee on the floor while looking straight at me. Nobody can tell me these are accidents. She is doing it on purpose to show me she decides and I have no idea why as she knows perfectly well where pee needs to go.

Tonight I lost it and yelled at her, after many incidents. I was so angry that I had spent 30 min. on the potty with her with no success and then had lots of cleaning to do too. Not my best moment. I want to understand this kind of behaviour. Is this normal toddler stubbornness or how can I make sure she understands that peeing on the floor is totally not acceptable when done on purpose? This happened 3 hours ago and I’m still raging!

Sometimes when we encounter potty refusal, the stress and feelings they produce can often get in the way of finding a solution. Toddlers are renowned for asserting themselves and resisting direction from adults, but at the same time they do need our help. Finding the right balance can be really tricky.

It’s hard not to feel angry and frustrated when you are putting so much effort in only to get the result you didn’t want at the end of it. So let’s think about what is going wrong? Why does she behave this way?

Putting yourself in her shoes is a great way to work out how your daughter is experiencing the situation. Alfie Kohn in his book Unconditional Parenting reminds us that “perspective taking helps us figure out what’s really going on, and makes us more patient with our children’s moods” (p. 207). This sort of reflection can also help you to imagine alternative ways of responding and connecting with her, which you can plan to use next time.

In imagining things from her perspective, you might see that in fact she is not the one in control – and that  asserting herself by weeing on the floor is a way of coping with that feeling.

A toddler will often try and feel in control by being defiant, but defiance is also sometimes a sign that a child needs more connection.   When you describe her “looking straight at you” it seems this is a direct challenge to you. Could you re-frame this as a sign that she does want your support and she needs you to help her get things right? Perhaps like you, she may be seeking to understand the right boundary and how to actualise it. She may also be testing her own limit as a way to understand the point at which she needs to act on her body sensations. Although it may seem the case, at 17 months, she is unlikely to be trying to manipulate your feelings. If she could articulate them, she may instead be asking for your help. If this is the case, your patience and understanding are key in helping her gain mastery of all elements of the process

However it may seem to you, you are in the more powerful position as the parent.   One of the first things that struck me was whether by telling her you’re going to the potty and offering to read, rewards etc. you might, inadvertently, still be trying to control the situation. It could be that the reminder you give her is enough in itself. She clearly prefers to do things on her own terms and she has a strong will to make this happen. So, how about harnessing this energy and intelligence to help her suggest a solution?  You might be surprised how effective this strategy can be as well as how much internal motivation comes about as a result.

You’ve described such an intelligent and capable child and I have no doubt that this is the case. However, it’s worth remembering that independence develops gradually. At 17 months, she will still be developing these skills. For her, it may be the skill in understanding how to communicate her needs and then act on them which is the part she has not quite mastered yet. However intelligent and capable you think she is, try lowering your expectations a little in terms of how much you expect her to manage alone. Once you think that she really does understand the process and just needs more independence, a casual reminder or what Andrea Olson describes as “a toss-out-prompt” can be effective (Olson, Go Diaper Free). This means that when you know she needs to go, casually remind her that her potty is over there and she should put her wee in that, then leave her to it. If she has an accident, you can use that as a learning opportunity, and have her help clean it up with you. Both these tactics are non-punitive ways of teaching that allow her to be in control of the situation.

Interestingly, research shows that kids who are given more control are also more likely to follow their mothers instructions (Parpal and Maccoby 1985, Stayton et al 1971).

Adding humour into the mix can also really help with potty refusal. At 17 months, slap stick humour is likely to appeal to her.  A tried and tested approach is to act the ‘incompetent person’ and role play various scenarios. For example, when my 3yo was on the toilet and point-blank refused to get off it for her brother, we made a big joke about “maybe I should do my poo in the bath (no!), or the wash bin (no!) or in my pants (no!)  etc. Someone older being silly was very funny and really lightened up the moment, preventing it from becoming a battle of wills. After laughing about it, she calmly moved off the toilet and spent several minutes explaining exactly what he needed to do to use it! She felt in control as well as being the one to articulate and carry out the necessary solution.

Finally, this is an ideal opportunity for you to learn how to manage your own feelings around this so that you can deescalate challenging situations.  Perhaps, by understanding the reasons why she is behaving this way can help you to let go of your anger and frustration. Without them, you have a better chance of meeting the situation without negative emotions fuelling your responses. Your connection to her is key because it’s the relationship you have which will enable you to work together to solve the problem and help her master the necessary skills.

References

Alfie Kohn. 2005. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books.

Parpal  M and Maccoby, E (1985). Maternal Responsiveness and Subsequent Child Compliance. Child development. 56 (1075-79)

Stayton D, Hogan R and Salter Ainsworth M. (1971). Infant Obedience and Maternal Behaviour. Child Development. 42 (1057-69).


If you have a potty dilemma, why not ask Rebecca? Submit your question to our Potty Talk series.

Rebecca Mottram, the founder of Little Bunny Bear and author of The Baby Pottying Guide for babies aged 0-18m (available now on Amazon), is a registered Children’s Nurse, potty learning researcher and consultant. Rebecca provides coaching to parents and carers around the world via private consultations and workshops. She also designs the Go Potty™ range of nappy belt systems, mattress protection and potty learning clothes and the Sew Potty™ range of sewing patterns.

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