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Balking at Training

I get a lot of questions from anguished parents about toilet training.

Some parents are confused or disturbed by their child’s selective use of the potty. “He urinates fine but he won’t poop anywhere but in his diaper.”

Other parents are concerned about the fact their child just doesn’t seem trainable. The child does what he or she is supposed to do once or twice but the performances are not sustained. Still other parents complain that no matter what they do the child doesn’t seem to get it.

The first thing I prescribe for all these parents is a big dose of parental relaxation. I tell them they did not do anything wrong, there is no need to blame themselves or get upset when other mothers brag how easy toilet training was in their house.

There are several reasons for delayed training (notice I use the word “delayed” because all children with normal bodies and brains will eventually become trained.) Sometimes parents start too early which means they usually have to stop and start again so it takes longer. Sometimes there is an event in the child’s life that causes regression like the birth of a sibling, illness, or loss of a loved one. Rarely there is an emotional problem in the child and/or the parent. Sometimes parents are not skilled in dealing with young children and a power struggle results with the fight arena located right there at the toilet bowl. Also some children are frightened by the toilet itself which is noisy and causes objects to disappear and never be seen again.


If your child really balks at using the potty, I suggest you STOP. Learning to use the toilet is a complex process. The child has to FEEL the full bladder or rectum, CONTROL the emptying, and GIVE UP THE FREEDOM to deposit body wastes when and wherever he or she pleases.

All of this learning takes time. And learning does not always proceed along a straight line. There are peaks and valleys. Or there may be a long period of refusal.

If you are dealing with a young child, under four, I suggest saying, “I’m going to put the potty chair away for a while. You are getting bigger every day and pretty soon we’ll try again.”

How long do you wait before restarting? Wait a few weeks and then go over your readiness list again. Sometimes the child will ask you to get out the potty again. Do it! Children are very good at knowing when they are ready to do things.

If your child is four or over I suggest a different approach. Give the older child RESPONSIBILITY for the training process.

o Tell your child he or she is big enough to use the toilet like big people do.

o If the child poops in the diaper, ask the child to help you dispose of the BM. Tell the child that grown-ups put their stool in the toilet. “You are big enough to do that even if you first put it in the diaper.”

o Tell the child that every time he or she poops in the potty you will award a gold star. Have your child make a chart for the stars. After seven or ten stars the child gets a small treat. This is a reward for a “good performance” analogous to a bonus at work.

o Be sure the child knows you WANT the child to be trained but you UNDERSTAND if he or she is not yet ready. This is the time to remind yourself that you love the child even if you are annoyed at or worried about the behavior.