Marion's journal, week 4: toilet training resistance

One of Spencer's rare visits to the potty this week.
One of Spencer's rare visits to the potty this week. 

Marion is mum to 22-month-old Spencer. This is her fourth and final diary entry on Spencer's toilet training journey: you can read her first, second and third weeks, or read on to find out what's happening now.  

We haven’t had many opportunities this week to hang out at home to be nappy-free and concentrate on Spencer’s toilet training. So after three quite good weeks going forward, we’ve had a bit of a step backward.

In the past few days, Spencer has just gone through a bit of potty refusal: toddler head shaking, saying ‘no’, and running out of our reach. I’d expected this to happen at some stage in our toilet training journey, fully aware that it’s a process that’s usually two steps forward, one back.

We’re still encouraging him, singing and clapping. He points to his Pull-Ups Toilet Training Skills Chart, and pats his (overnight) nappy in the morning. He also pats his Pull-Ups during the day - I suggest using the potty, and now he just acts up and won’t sit on it. 

I’d love to have some advice on how to approach this and bring it back on track. I understand I shouldn’t pressure him, and to keep it casual.

Response by Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, early childhood education and child development expert:  

Child resistance or refusal is the most common toilet training challenge experienced by parents. How you manage this situation will ultimately determine whether or not this is just a small hiccup or if it will turn the toilet training landscape into a battlefield. Before we move forward, it’s important to differentiate resistance or refusal from ‘readiness’. 

Toileting resistance versus 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 slightly older children who are physically and emotionally 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.

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Given Spencer is still in the early days of toilet training, this refusal may be more of an indicator of his emerging readiness rather than true resistance. At times like these it’s often helpful to revisit the signs of toileting readiness, remembering that social and emotional readiness is equally (if not more) important as physical readiness.

Emerging independence and toilet training battles

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 resist their parents’ constant reminders to use the toilet in an attempt to exert their independence and control the situation. While independence and assertiveness will hold Spencer in good stead for future endeavours, these types of behaviours aren’t always welcome within the toilet training arena!

Some suggestions for getting Spencer back on track:

  • Try shifting the focus away from toilet training, just for a while. If life has turned into one long battle it’s time to take a short break, just for a week or two. It’s great that you recognise the importance of adopting a more casual response to this situation, as forcing an unwilling child to use the potty can create all kinds of ongoing challenges.
  • Avoid constant reminders, and resist the urge to constantly remind Spencer to use the toilet. Once Spencer has used the toilet once or twice on his own you can be reassured that he is capable of doing this. Constantly reminding children to go to toilet can build further resistance and lead to toilet refusal.
  • Re-think your strategies. Sometimes the strategies we use for encouraging independent toileting may not be right for that particular child. Think about different ways you can inspire or encourage Spencer to use the toilet. If physical rewards have lost all meaning then think about what else may work. Talk with Spencer, ask him what he thinks would help them to use the toilet.
  • Don’t be tempted to re-introduce nappies once these have been removed. Most children this age don’t enjoy the feeling of wet pants. Even if Spencer continues to experience accidents, it’s important not to put him back into nappies, as this gives children the message that they have somehow failed.

Be careful about how you use incentives

In order to encourage Spencer to use the toilet the desire has to come from within. While verbal praise is fine, it’s important not to overdo it, as it can be as damaging as punishment to children during the toilet training process. While it’s fine to celebrate each success, make this about his behaviour: “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 they’re “proud of them” when they wee in the toilet, this can also give children 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. 

Going out and about when toilet training 

There is the tendency for parents to feel a little housebound during the early stages of toilet training. While I certainly endorse, where possible, a few focused home-based days in the very early stages, it’s equally important for children to be exposed to toilets outside the home. Encourage Spencer to go to the toilet just before leaving the house, and be aware where the toilets are when out and about – typically there’s very little time between when a young child indicates the need to go and actually going! 

Learning to use the potty or toilet is like learning any new skill: it takes time. Children are unique in their approach to toilet training, and some, like your eldest son, will learn to use the toilet within a few weeks, while for others the process will be much longer. Given Spencer’s age it’s likely that this journey will take a little longer than your first son’s, but with your support and understanding he’ll eventually learn to use the toilet in his own time. 

All the best!

Regards,

Dr Cathrine

Talk to other parents about toilet training in the Essential Baby forum