What to do when your child refuses to go potty

Have you ever asked your child to use the potty/toilet only to get “no!” in response? Perhaps your child has a full-blown meltdown, including screaming, aggression and tears? Or perhaps they try negotiating, bargaining, procrastination or ignore you completely? Refusal or resistance is one of the most challenging problems you can encounter when potty training, but don’t worry – there are options to resolve this.

As you may know, I draw on the available evidence base alongside a number of mentors and supervisors to support my practice as a potty learning consultant. From this, I know that behavioural problems are one of the most difficult problems that parents encounter when potty training. When your child refuses to co-operate it can really erode your sense of confidence, authority and ultimately, your relationship with your child. It’s easy for refusal or resistance to wind up as a chronic issue that can easily escalate into something unmanageable. So what should you do?

See the behaviour as your child’s way of telling you what they need

Try and stand back and assess the situation. What is your child telling you they need? The most common desire is for a sense of control. Perhaps your child feels they have very little control in their life and having no choice about where to do their wee and poo is the last straw? See if you can give them control elsewhere, to avoid them channelling this need into potty training.

Some kids have a difficult temperament that makes them more likely to push against boundaries and their resistance is their way of working out how far they can take this. With temperament, if someone has a very marked trait, e.g. very sensitive, very intense, very quiet, very active etc, they will have to learn when to adapt to the world and when the world can adapt to them. For some kids, potty training is the first time they have had to adapt to the world and our social norms in such a personal way. It can be difficult and they need your help to adjust, compromise and accept these new social rules. (Remember if you have used disposable nappies until now, you are asking them to unlearn everything they have learned since birth about where pee and poop goes. That’s changing a significant part of their entire worldview up until this point)

Some kids may have had an experience that has made them fearful or anxious about using the potty or toilet. Commonly this occurs after a bout of constipation which may have caused a painful poo. Sometimes it’s because the toilet is scary to them, sometimes it’s their imagination working overtime to create fears. Perhaps they are communicating a need for more reassurance to help them overcome these feelings.

If accidents have been ongoing for a long time, it could that your child has given up trying to solve things, and they need some self-esteem building and strategy to help them to persist until they succeed.

There are many more ways that your child’s behaviour can tell you what they need if you can find a way to meet them where they are and consider it from their perspective.

role model

Resistance can really push your buttons and make you feel powerless as a parent. Your number one goal, however, is to stay calm through the storm, thus modelling to your child that you can contain and cope with their lack of rationality. Imagine you are a calm sea, even when your child rocks the boat and creates waves, you don’t have to get into a storm. Role model being the calm one.

don’t rush to fix their problem

Our instinct is to make things better. This may mean giving in to an unreasonable demand, allowing your child to ultimately learn that tantrums get them what they want. However, trying to fix the problem like this can reinforce the unwanted behaviour.

Praise the behaviours that are going in the right direction, e.g. effort and co-operation, as well as the end result. Take opportunities to reinforce desired behaviour when you see it, not just about using the potty/toilet but also at other times. Give your child a sense that co-operating gets positive attention from you. Likewise, do not fuel unwanted behaviours by getting into an argument, negotiating or even discussing things when they are in the midst of an episode. Allow them to have their feelings and express them while you calmly witness that, acknowledging what they are expressing in any way you feel they can understand, or simply patiently observing it without judgement. This helps your child learn that all feelings are acceptable, and you are there to help them process them, helping to build trust and open communication. Wait until they are calm before you try and reason with them so they are in a better position to receive this information.

teach them better ways to manage their feelings

When your child is calm, teach them how to negotiate or ask for what they need in a more helpful way. Set your expectations clearly so that they know when you ask them to use the potty, you need them to do that without having an issue about it. Make sure you give them instructions face to face, and check they have understood them.

Stop trying

Once you have set out your expectation and checked they have understood, direct them to use the potty at the right time and then leave it up to them. Just let go and give them the opportunity to practise. If they make a poor choice and have an accident, tell them what you expect them to do next time. Accidents are a valuable part of the learning process and sometimes, not engaging in a battle but simply stating what needs to happen and then leaving it up to them is the best way to avoid giving negative attention to unwanted behaviour. For example:

“It’s time to go potty”

“No!”

“OK, well make sure you get it in the potty when you need to go”, or

“OK, well let me know if you need any help”

“OK, your potty is right there when you need it”

Giving them the control allows them an opportunity to practice self-regulation as well as giving them a choice.

heal your relationship

Often, chronic refusal and resistance to the potty can result in a real breakdown in your relationship. Once you have avoided escalating the issue, you can start to build better communication between you and your child. Regulating yourself, e.g. by avoiding keeping an argument going and staying calm shows your child you can’t be rocked. Allow time-in on a regular basis to show your child you are listening to them, interested in their choices and interests and willing to play with them in their chosen activity. Just 5 minutes a day can make a big difference.

Help them learn and develop emotional intelligence by role modelling it yourself. Show them you can cope in different situations, demonstrate problem-solving skills, apologise, and listen to feelings, hear other opinions, stay calm when someone else is emotional. Teach your child to notice their feelings as they begin, rather than once they are already exploding.

Get help if you need it

Sometimes (rarely), chronic refusal and resistance can be a sign of a developmental problem. Red flags for this are things like your child not making friends, frequent arguments with friends, conflict with other areas of family life, uncontrollable anger, trouble with authority, or acting in a way that is dangerous to themselves or others. If you are worried about any of these things, seek help from a trusted professional.

Sometimes it’s just useful to talk it through with someone who gets it. A private consultation can help you identify the most likely causes of behavioural problems like resistance and refusal, and give you a tailor-made plan to resolve it which factors in all the individual elements of your situation. You can contact Rebecca to discuss how a consultation might help.

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