Psych Services: Some important lessons about toilet-training your child

Lisa Garmezy

Check Amazon for books on toilet-training and the first five promise your child will be dry in less than a day. Somehow, my colleagues and I felt we had trouble doing it in less than a year.

Teaching kids to use the potty can be frustrating. Before they can get it, we have to learn three hard lessons about children’s uniqueness and the limits of our authority.

Then, too, this is an area where an NPR reporter said, “Science has failed parents.” There are no clear guidelines.

I thought the American Academy of Pediatrics could help. Checking the website, I read that some children are interested as early as 18 months, but others are “not ready until they are two and a half years old.” Seven paragraphs later an expert said, “Children are developmentally ready to use the potty around the age of 3.” Which is it?

The true toilet-training experts don’t have advanced degrees. Your kids can teach you everything you need to know.

What Parents Learn

Lesson One: Kids are individuals. Our children do not develop on the same schedule as their cousins, or the neighbor’s kids, or anyone else. Absorb this reality now, because you’ll need to remember it over and over up to and including the time when your little one faces college admissions or the job market.

The absolutely special, unique nature of your child explains why no one can say when he’s ready to toilet train. The age at which toddlers develop the needed muscle control varies.

Parents have to figure out for themselves when children are ready. Getting their own pants on and becoming aware of dirty diapers are two signals that it’s time. Taking an interest in the toilet is another—so Kanye, there’s an upside to North flushing your phone.

Out of Control

Life Lesson Two from potty-training: Although we set limits and enforce rules, we cannot control our kids. When they face peer pressure at a party, for example, you can’t force them to do the right thing.

In potty-training as in life, respecting your child’s growing independence is going to help you reach your goals for your child. Basically, children poop when and where they want to.

Professional advice hasn’t changed in a generation. If the kid doesn’t get the idea in a few weeks, drop it and wait a while. Don’t shame or scold. When the child is ready, it will happen.

At age 18 months to three years (approximately), the child is supposed to work out what he can and can’t control. Every parent who has been through the terrible twos or heard “Me do it!” knows that well.

Power struggles can arise. Push kids about toilet-training and they may push back. You can end up with constipation or BMs deliberately deposited in unfortunate places. Or, if kids are made to feel powerless about such an intimate matter, they can end up with lingering feelings of weakness.

When your child’s desire to control his or her own body conflicts with your dislike of expensive messy diapers, all you can do is take a deep breath and back off. Actually, given the diaper, skip the deep breath.

The Three-Year-Old Mind

Lesson Three: Kids don’t think like adults. Common sense is in short supply. I used to think my twins were a bit like medicated schizophrenics—they knew lots of stuff and functioned pretty well, but had trouble telling what was real and what wasn’t. Whales, princesses, mermaids and dinosaurs all confused them.

Children have lots of irrational ideas related to the potty. Dr. Spock said they are proud of what they produce and reluctant to give it up to parents. There is also “anxiety about seeing the BM flushed away in the toilet. To small children this is as disturbing as if they saw their arm being sucked down.” A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but many are afraid of falling into the toilet completely, and drowning or getting flushed away.

Try to appreciate that giving up diapers can be really, really hard. Your child may be fearful or have mixed feelings about becoming a “big boy” or “big girl.” It’s common for children under stress—whether from an earthquake or the birth of a sibling—to backslide. Criticism won’thelp.

Help in Hard Cases

Eventually, it works. A government website says that 88 percent of children are out of diapers by three and a half. Still, my sons stayed in diapers until very close to their fourth birthday, and they are happy successful adults. Be patient.

By the time your child is five, if he or she is dry during the day but not at night, our staff agrees that alarm pads for the bed are helpful. When a tiny amount of urine hits the special mattress pad, it sounds a tone, vibrates, or flashes a light, and the child wakes up to use the bathroom. Made by manufacturers such as Malem, they sell on for about $100. In just a few weeks, the system can strengthen the brain’s connection between having a full bladder and waking up.

The child who used to be dry at night but has become a bedwetter may have anxiety issues or a medical problem. A visit to your pediatrician, or us, is recommended.

See for more information—and be grateful that your child is training you.