Ask an expert: My child is suddenly resisting toilet training

We got off to a good start, but now she’s refusing to use the toilet
We got off to a good start, but now she’s refusing to use the toilet Photo: Getty

We asked Essential Baby members what their child’s major issues are in the toilet training process.

Here, Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, the Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood and a mum of three, addresses a problem many families encounter.

• My child has regressed in toilet training
• My child treats undies likes nappies 

My child is resisting the toilet training process. We got off to a good start, but now she’s refusing to use the toilet. What can we do now?

Dr Cathrine says: Child resistance or refusal is the most common toilet training challenge, but it’s important to differentiate resistance or refusal from ‘readiness’. If young children aren’t developmentally ready to begin toilet training, they often exhibit behaviours that may be misinterpreted as resistance.

True toileting resistance is typically seen among children who are at least three years of age, are capable of getting themselves to the toilet or potty – and have most likely done so in the past – but instead choose to wet or soil their pants.  These children are unlikely to independently take themselves to the toilet and often refuse to do so even when asked by their parents. Unfortunately this often leads to power struggles between parents and children, turning the toilet training process into an emotional battlefield.

One of the trickiest things about toilet training is that it typically occurs at a time in development when young children are experiencing the need for greater autonomy. It’s not unusual for young children to deliberately ignore their parents’ reminders to use the toilet in an attempt to exert their independence and control over the situation. And while independence and assertiveness will hold your child in good stead for future endeavours, these types of behaviours aren’t always welcome within the toilet training arena!

So how can you get a resistant child back on track?

Shift the focus away from toilet training, just for a while. If life has turned into one long battle, it’s time to have a break, just for a week or two. Put toilet training on the back burner and enjoy your child. Use this time to celebrate all the wonderful things your child has achieved in their few short years of life.

Advertisement

Re-think your strategies. Whatever strategies you were using for encouraging independent toileting clearly just weren’t right for your child. Think about different ways you can inspire or encourage your child to use the toilet: if physical rewards have lost all meaning, think about what else may work. Talk with your child, asking them what they think would help them use the toilet.

Transfer the responsibility of toileting back to your child. When it comes time to revisit toilet training, you need to shift some of the control back to your child. Explain to them how their body works and that the wee and poo belongs to them. Explain that they are a big boy or girl now, and because of that you’re not going to keep reminding them to go to the toilet. Instead, show them that you’re confident in their own ability to go to the toilet when they feel the urge.

Don’t re-introduce nappies once these have been removed. Most children don’t enjoy the feeling of wet pants. Even if your child continues to experience accidents, it’s important not to put them back into nappies, as this gives them the message that they’ve somehow failed.

Avoid constant reminders. Resist the urge to constantly remind your child to use the toilet. Once your child has used the toilet once or twice on their own, you can be reassured that they’re capable of doing this. Constantly reminding children to go to toilet can build further resistance and lead to toilet refusal.

Be careful about how you use incentives. In order to encourage your child to use the toilet, the desire has to come from within. Star charts and rewards can be helpful in the initial stages of toilet training, but they’re no longer appropriate later in the process.

While verbal praise is fine, it’s important not to overdo this, as it can be as damaging as punishment to children during the toilet training process. It’s fine to celebrate each success, but focus on their behaviour; say things like “Keep up the good work” or “It’s great that you were able to tell that you needed to wee”. While it’s common for parents to tell young children that they are proud of them when they wee in the toilet, this can also give the message that you’re not proud of them when they don’t succeed. An overly celebratory response, while good intentioned, can actually result in ‘resistant’ children feeling greater pressure to perform. This can lead to avoidance, which is often motivated by fear of failure.

Above all else, keep calm. Easier said than done, I know, especially if this has been going on for a long time. But keep in mind that children are very susceptible to their parents’ emotions, so try to avoid times of high stress, and make sure you have a good support network. Remember that you don’t have to manage this on your own!

Share your toilet training challenges and tips with other parents in our Toilet Training forum.