Potty training a stubborn child can be a nightmare. The solution? Let your kid take the wheel.
Everyone hates to be micromanaged.
You know the type. The boss who examines every single decision you make. Demands that you copy him in on every email. Checks in for updates five times a day.
It’s enough to make you totally check out.
Micromanaging is the worst. But if you’ve got a stubborn toddler on your hands, you might be doing some micromanaging of your own.
Delivering frequent reminders. Scheduling potty breaks. Getting into constant back-and-forth with your child.
It’s time to step back. Let your kid take charge. Potty training is all about helping your child learn to be independent — to do Grown Up Things, without your help. And the best part is, it’s a lot more fun this way, for both of you.
Pour yourself a glass of wine and read on. Let’s do this.
Focus on the fundamentals
If your child seems stubborn when it comes to the potty, it’s time to raise your game.
Brush up on your potty training basics. The best time to make adjustments is now… and even small changes can make a big difference.
Waiting until your toddler is ready to start potty training is key. It’s easy to feel like you need to move the process along. After all, your best friend’s daughter isn’t even two yet and already fully potty trained… and meanwhile your son is three and still in diapers. Right?
Actually, all kids develop at their own pace, when they are ready. If your child is reaching her other developmental milestones, she will eventually potty train. Try to move things along sooner, and you’ll kick-start an endless cycle of headaches and power struggles.
How do you know when your kid is ready?
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you wait until your child can:
- walk to the toilet and sit on it
- pull his or her pants down and back up
- stay dry for up to two hours at a time
- follow basic directions
- let you know that he or she needs to go
- show interest in using the toilet
And remember: always, always, always, keep the process light and fun. Classic children’s books about using the potty offer a great way to build excitement about the process. It’s also an opportunity to bond with your child and build a love of reading together. Some potty training books we enjoy are Potty, Everyone Poops and Once Upon a Potty.
“It’s not you, it’s me”: your new toilet training mantra
Buckle up. Now comes the hard part. If your kid flat-out refuses to potty train, you know how exhausting that can be. Now it’s time to look at things through your child’s eyes. How frustrating has this process become for them?
Fact: the most common reason that toddlers resist potty-training is a power-struggle with their parents. Barton Schmitt, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, notes that many stubborn toddlers exhibit “reminder resistance,” a defiant reaction to excessive reminders to use the potty.
“As long as the reminders continue, the control battle will rage on,” Schmitt explains. “Reminders come across as nagging and will not suddenly become helpful.”
Be honest with yourself. How are you handling the process?
Do you get stressed when your munchkin pees on the rug? Is it frustrating when he won’t stay on the pot because you’ve seen him do it before?
If you’re letting the process stress you out, you may find yourself using heavy-handed tactics to try and move the process along. But that’s a classic mistake. These tactics rarely work. And they’re much more likely to draw you into an entrenched battle with your child.
(Word to the wise: don’t let rug stains be the reason you wig out. Ruggable makes machine washable area rugs to save your floors and your sanity.)
How to flip the script
By the time you’re locked in a conflict cycle over using the potty, your child has learned a familiar script. It goes something like this: “Do you need to go to the potty? Pumpkin, you should use the potty. You look squirmy, let’s go use the potty.”
Your kid knows the score. He’s getting attention for not using the potty… in the form of constant reminders and battles. Remember, parental attention is a powerful motivator for young children.
It’s vital to flip the dynamic. You want your child to receive attention only for using the potty.
Some common errors to avoid are:
- Providing reminders to your child to use the potty
- Insisting that your child use the potty when he doesn’t want to
- Holding your child on the potty when he wants to get up
To really move away from power struggles, let go of the idea that your child needs any help or reminders. Give all the responsibility for using the potty to your child. Sit down and talk with your child about it. Explain that it’s her body and she’s in charge. She needs to learn to pay attention to when her body is telling her she needs to pee and poop. Tell her you won’t provide her with any more reminders or any more help. Show her you’re not worried about it.
And then, follow through. NO REMINDERS. Your child will make mistakes. But that’s good — it helps her learn what she needs to do next time. Whatever happens, keep a Zen attitude and don’t get flustered. Eventually, she’ll get it right.
Make them really really want to pee
“Okay, I get it. But I’ve got to do something to get things moving! What can I do?”
Simple. Bribe your kid — I mean, offer an incentive.
Choosing the right incentive is tricky. It can be a trial-and-error process to find an incentive that matters to your child. But once you land on the right one, it can be an incredibly effective way to move the process along.
Whatever the incentive is, it’s crucial that you go all in. With a stubborn toddler, you might think you’ve already exhausted all your options, so why even try? But if you do it right, it will pay off. Get creative. Take time to think about what would motivate your child. And show that you’re excited when you talk about it.
When you offer an incentive, it’s vital to make it a time-limited reward. For example, your child gets to watch Octonauts or play with his Magna-Tiles for only 30 minutes and only after using the toilet. Enforcing a time limit is key, and makes the reward an earned privilege your child will continue to work for.
For maximum impact, deliver the reward right away when your child releases pee or poop into the potty. Whatever incentive you use, you maintain possession of the reward. You’re in control.
(And by the way, give your kid lots of fluids. The more the better. Don’t hold back.)
Bonus: Advice for Parents of the Truly Stubborn
If your child is truly strong-willed, you may need some extra persuasion to get your kid motivated. And this is where behavioral psychology has your back. Research has shown that the pain of losing is about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. Psychologists call this loss aversion — and you can use it to your advantage.
Taking away toys or other privileges can be an especially powerful motivator. If you’ve done everything you can think of to provide incentives, consider taking away toys or games your child really cares about.
For example, if your child has shown interest and readiness, but often forgets to go and is having a lot of accidents, try taking away a toy if he makes a mistake. Don’t make a big deal about it. Put the toys somewhere where your child can see them, but can’t reach them. Tell him you had to take them away because he isn’t listening to his body and using the potty like a grown-up.
Chances are, he’ll be back on the potty before you know it.
Especially when you’re cleaning the floor for the fourth time today, it’s easy to get a little stressed out.
Take a breath, and remember: it’s only pee. Letting your kid take the wheel is messy… but it will be worth it.
He’s in control of the process. Learning that he can be independent. And he can do things on his own — without your help.
And that’s something to get super excited about.