Potty-Training a Reluctant Toddler

Q: We have a three-year-old son who is giving us a difficult time with bathroom training. Although he is the youngest of our seven children, this is the first time we have gone through anything like this.

When we try to discuss his opposition to using the toilet, he whines and tells us that he is frightened. He is not scared of sitting on it. And he will allow us to place him on it. But he will not use it.

Encouragement and bribery have not helped at all, although both approaches worked very well with all his older siblings. At this point we are at a loss as to what to try next. We would like to enroll him in a nursery program. Until he is toilet trained, however, that would not be possible.

A relative suggested that we write to you. We would be grateful for any advice you could offer.

A: While I have addressed bathroom training in the past, I have never discussed the early childhood fear of using the toilet. I will attempt, therefore, to help you with this common and confounding parenting challenge.

Although I cannot cite statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests that boys are more difficult to train than girls. Many theories have been proposed to account for this disparity. None has so far conclusively disproven the rest. Fortunately, however, you do not need to understand this discrepancy in order to help your son. My only purpose in mentioning this is to offer you the comfort of “Tzaras rabbim chatzi nechamah.” (The suffering of the many is partial consolation.) (D’varim Rabbah 2:14)

Three-year-olds have a notoriously difficult time expressing their feelings verbally. While they may speak fluently, their vocabulary is limited to words describing physical objects and activities. It is always most frustrating, therefore, when parents try to explore and understand the specifics of a three-year-old’s feelings.

Without more information from your son, we are forced to speculate about what may be frightening him about using the toilet. Some young children, for example, have a sense that they are losing something.  Other children are intimidated by the sight and sounds of the flushing. And still others feel insecure being precariously perched on the edge of the huge toilet seat so far above the floor level.

It is for all of these reasons that training potties were invented. Many children do not need them and can be trained from the get go to use a regular toilet. For children who are fearful of using the real thing, however, potties provide a wonderful alternative. Potties are non-threatening, child-sized and child-friendly. Furthermore, due to their smaller size, they offer the additional bonus of enabling the child to utilize them more independently.

The proper procedure is to introduce the potty as one would a new toy. The child should even be allowed to play with it, thereby eliminating any fearfulness that may be associated with the bathroom. Needless to say, the potty should be kept in the bathroom. And the child should be given simple instructions for using it. Finally, the child should be told that he will receive a small prize or treat for every time he uses it correctly.

It is important not to be overbearing, pressuring or nagging about this. Have patience, therefore, and allow time for your son to get used to the idea. It is best to keep reminders down to no more than one a day.

Once your son gets used to the potty, do not rush too quickly to try to get him to “graduate” to the regular toilet. Allow at least two or three weeks for him to feel fully comfortable using the potty before you even bring up the idea of his using the regular toilet. When you finally do get to that point, emphasize how grown up your son has become by using the potty. And explain to him how much more grown up he will be when he is able to use the toilet. Upgrade the treat or reward he will receive for using the toilet and then wait for him to tell you when he is ready.

By not pressuring him, you will be giving him the space and time he needs to meet this final challenge. And by offering a greater prize, you will be increasing his motivation. Then, when he finally does use the toilet, be sure to shower him with all the praise and approval you can muster in order to insure that he will repeat this positive behavior until it becomes second nature for him.