Potty Struggles with a 4-Year-Old

In this episode: The parent of a 4-year-old is concerned that her boy won’t poop on the toilet and wonders what she can do to encourage him. She realizes that it’s a sensitive topic and she wants to respectfully help him “without adding to the issue.”

Transcript of “Potty Struggles with a 4-Year-Old”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m answering an email from a parent who says that her son decided it was time to sit on the potty when he was three years old, but now a year later he’s still not able to have a bowel movement on the potty. So she’s wondering how to respectfully help him along.

Here’s the question I received:

“Hi Janet, first off thank you for your positive and encouraging parenting advice. Your books and podcasts are truly amazing. (You’re very welcome.)

My question concerns my four-year-old son. He’s very particular and very routine. He likes things to be orderly and neat but is still a fun rambunctious little guy. Potty training was particularly difficult due to his strong preference for a reliable routine. I can’t say I blame him. Change is hard. We did not rush potty training and just kept encouraging him. At three years old he decided he was ready. He’s done a great job and conquered the potty part of potty training. Here comes the issue.

A year later he still won’t poop on the potty. He has done it maybe three times total and it was awesome. We cheered and he seemed proud but now he refuses and gets so upset at the thought of pooping on the toilet. He demands a diaper. I’ve had people say just wait him out but I can’t stand the thought of him being miserable and pooping his own pants. That feels cruel to me. He’s now four and slowly edging toward boyhood. I feel bathroom topics are sensitive and I want to respectfully help him conquer his dislike of the toilet without adding to the issue. Any advice?”

Okay, so this is an interesting question that I receive some version of a lot and it reflects the importance of emotional readiness for toilet learning and how this can really be a sensitive aspect for some children. It’s so sensitive that if children feel some kind of urging from their parents or any kind of pressure around this, their bodies actually almost won’t let them release on the toilet. It affects them physically, but when they’re offered a diaper they are able to.

I realize there is a lot of advice around toilet training out there, books and experts who will tell you that you can do this in three days, that it’s up to parents to make this happen, that children need to be coerced with awards like stickers and treats and big applause when children get this right. I don’t believe in that. What those things do is affect the intrinsic desire that children have to achieve, and learning how to use the toilet is one of the biggest early achievements that children can have. It gives them great confidence in themselves, but if they feel like they’re doing it for other reasons, for parents, to please them or to get a reward, it devalues the accomplishment.

Many children see right through those things. They feel coerced. They don’t like it. It feels like pressure. Also it often doesn’t work with children who are especially sensitive and tuned in, so that’s why I recommend what it sounds like this parent is doing, which is really trusting your child’s readiness and allowing them to own this. I’ve written about this in a few articles mainly in “3 Reasons Kids Don’t Need Potty Training” which is on my website janetlansbury.com.

In this case it sounds like, according to this description the mother shared, that her son is the type that would be sensitive around this because he likes things to be orderly and neat, and that indicates that he likes to feel a sense of control. What comes out of our bodies really needs to be in our control, so it’s wonderful that this family didn’t push him at all. They allowed him to decide when he was ready.

He needed it to be like that as so many children do. But the problem started when they were so excited that he did poop on the potty. She says it was awesome and we cheered and he seemed proud. So they were excited. They cheered. They showed him their excitement and that can be enough to make this much, much harder for him. That can feel like pressure to a child like this. Obviously that was very well intentioned and the parents were caught up in their own enthusiasm and how wonderful it was, and I’m sure they didn’t realize that their child might react that way.

This reminds me of a time that my oldest daughter, who is sensitive and intense, she was at least when she was little, we went miniature golfing together. When she had younger siblings I used to have this afternoon once a week that she and I would get to go do something after school. It could be really simple like going to the park or something more extravagant like going to a miniature golf course.

So there we were, we started playing and she was doing brilliantly. She had these amazing shots and I was excited and I said, “Wow! You must be so proud that you’re doing so well.” Well then after that she wasn’t able to keep that up and she didn’t do as well. She got very down about it, and she was about six years old, so she was able to share with me that it didn’t feel good that I told her she was doing so well because that made her feel nervous about keeping that up.

So I think that’s what’s happened to this little boy. He’s sensitive to pressure and he wanted to be able to be the hero that everyone applauded for, and that made it really hard for him to do it. It went all the way to the physical level where in his body he couldn’t do it. Emotions are very powerful for all of us but especially for young children.

So what I would do about this is, first of all, I would dial back the emotional involvement that the parents have in this. I would really trust him. I would let go of this completely. You know, if they have excitement they want to share, share it with each other as parents but not with him. If he does make a positive step forward and he is able to poop on the potty again, I would just say something like, “Wow, you felt like pooping on the potty today,” not making a big to-do about it, allowing it again to be inner directed, allowing it to be his intrinsic desire, and for him to be completely own what he is doing.

I realize that’s hard, and this is true for a lot of other areas with children as well. When they’re doing any kind of skill, it’s so hard to temper our enthusiasm because we love them and we’re excited for them. This is a good example of how important it is to be a little careful about that.

So when she says now he refuses, I wouldn’t put him in the position of even refusing. I wouldn’t even ask him or suggest that he does it. I would let him know that diapers are ready whenever he needs them and you’re totally down for giving those to him if you want him to be comfortable.

And regarding where you all stand in this process, I would say something to him like, “I know we’ve been talking to you about going on the potty and pooping on the potty. We’ve been encouraging you. You know what we realized? We trust you to do this when you’re ready. We know you’re going to do it when that time comes and you’ll let us know when you want to do it, so we’re going to stop bugging you about it completely.” And then I would really and truly let it go so that he feels the emotional space to take this big step.

This mother says she’s worried about him being miserable. That’s one of those things that we really can’t control. We can’t control his own feelings about his process if he is miserable, or maybe he’s a little miserable because he feels like he’s letting the parents down. Taking that out of the equation is so important. But also allowing him to feel the struggle in this journey, allowing that to be his to experience it and not worrying about that, that it’s something we have to fix. What we have control over is not adding to it with our own agenda and our own excitement and concern and worry. We have to get off the rollercoaster ourselves.

And so it makes sense that she feels bathroom topics are sensitive. Yes, I feel this is sensitive for him because it feels like a big failure. It feels like he really let people down and disappointed his parents. She says, “I want to respectfully help him conquer his dislike of the toilet.” So that is not something that these parents have the power to do. In fact, their involvement I believe will make it harder for him, so letting go of that, really trusting him. He’s going to conquer it, but he’s going to do it himself without his parents pressuring him around it in any way, even in the most positive way.

Parenting is a sequence of letting go, letting go and trusting, letting go and trusting that he can do this. So she says without adding to the issue she wants to help him conquer his dislike and, yes, if she gets involved in helping him in any way or even trying to encourage him, that could add to the issue so that’s what I would be very careful of.

And as I said before, this is a common issue and it can continue. I know families where it’s continued and continued into age six even. So we don’t want that for him if possible. I understand the challenge, believe me, of letting go but we have to let go for him to be able to physically and literally let go. It’s that simple. I hope that makes sense and I hope that helps.

Please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

 

13 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really like having the choice to read or listen to your podcasts. Thanks!

  2. So what advice would you give to our family? We currently have a 5 year old (turning 6 in January) who is still regularly pooping in a pull-up and refuses to even sit with it on. He’ll say that he will try sitting (with pull up on) to poop but then closes the door and stands up while going. We aren’t making any progress despite allowing him the time and space. His dad cleans him up every night (while I put baby to sleep) and it’s starting to feel like we are enabling at this point. He’s a super sensitive and anxious guy and we have always been very warm and attentive to his needs. I guess the positive side of it is that he isn’t holding it and he goes nightly but I just can’t imagine him wanting to change this. I don’t feel like miralax is the answer. Do we just wait?? For the last 2 years he has said that he will start going on his next birthday and I do think he wants to do that but when the urge comes he really can’t take the leap. I have offered him toys/candy etc. I have intermittently put on a tiny bit of pressure and then I’ll back off for several months. I never make him cry or shame him in any way. usually I just say something like “hey, do you want to try?” His dad never even brings it up. Ideas? I love your page and read it everyday on fb. I’m also (ironically enough) an OT and DIR/Floortime trained therapist Help

    1. Hi Kristen – Did you happen to listen to this podcast? In your description it sounds like there is pressure being placed on your son. Perhaps you’re not seeing this? He “refuses to even sit with it on”. “He’ll say that he will try sitting (with pull up on) to poop but then closes the door and stands up while going.” The toys, candy, etc. Even, “Hey, do you want to try.” This all adds up to quite a lot of pressure and is the reason he is struggling. When children feel the pressure of our agenda in this aspect of development, they often put on the brakes. The best solution I know of is what I suggest in this podcast… back wayyyy off of your boy and trust him to conquer this in his way and time. No more coaxing, urging, asking, and suggesting. I hope this works out for you!

      1. Thank you so much for your response! I went back and read more and I had a feeling you would give this advice.
        I will absolutely do this. I had a talk with him tonight about how he can do it when *he* is ready. It is actually nice to let this go a bit. I’m still very curious though….. Have you worked with families where the child just decided to try the potty one day on their own, at age 6 !? Do children with this issue ever need a gradual approach? I read about a strategy where u put a hole in the diaper (starting with a pin-size hole) and slowly make it bigger over a period of weeks and months as your child feels ready but I hear you saying that something like this would still be adult directed pressure and I agree. I just haven’t seen or read *any* success stories from folks who let it be….maybe because everyone posts to the internet when they are having the problem, but they don’t return to describe how it resolved.

        My bigger issue:
        Having a super sensitive kiddo has been tricky because there are times when he needed a little push to overcome a fear (i.e. swim lessons, baby sitters and other new situations) but I never quite know where this line is. He has always been a high needs kid. He nursed until 3.5, we still co-sleep, we have never had a night away (unless you count the night our daughter was born) and this school year, we have been picking him up early each day (after a meeting with his teachers) in an effort to help him adjust to all the newness of a full day K Before this he was attending a sweet in-home preschool for 3 years. The question of how much to accommodate an anxious child still challenges me at times (at work and home) but I do feel like we have generally given my son what he needs, (and from that place of security he has been able to take many risks) even though it has been emotionally draining and hard on our marriage. I think my husband lacks firm boundaries with him but I can border on being snappy or harsh when I’m overwhelmed. Ahhhhh, there is always a bigger picture.

        Thanks Again!! I love your approach and dedication to families. I frequently refer people to your site and books. Thank you for all that you do!!!! We will happily pay for a consult with you if that is something we can set up.

        1. Our daughter (now 3.5) is 100% like this…I just wanted to say that I totally empathise – when to push her limits/help her grow and when to protect – it’s very hard and we haven’t nailed it! Including that childcare question – standard schooling because that’s real life, or something quieter…?

  3. avatar Jessica Isles says:

    All the emotional letting go that Janet suggests is one part. The other part might be privacy and positioning. Humans likes to close the door and assume a position comfortable to actually poop! Sounds funny but one of my children showed me this when I found them squatting on the toilet to poop. If he wanted a diaper I gave him that but let him decide and gave him the option of privacy, potty, toilet and whatever position he needed to feel comfortable – lots of choice seemed to work and as I had never heard of anyone still wearing diapers in a board meeting (for example!) I didn’t worry or pressure or in fact care. He decided that squatting on the toilet was how he preferred to go.

  4. My daughter was easily going along with potty learning and pooped in the porta potty and I poured it into the big potty and flushed ….. (long story short)

    Not until months later, after she had stopped pooping except in her diaper, did I learn she wondered about the hole in the toilet and would she flush down? and this was all set up when I flushed “her” (the poop) down the toilet and it disappeared.

    Mister Rogers had in his opening a Yellow blinking light. He said this was a message to the parents to Slow Down. I have dramatically slowed us down so that I can learn this little girl. As subtle as babies are, so they continue to be, I am learning.

    My daughter uses the potty regularly, now. I never thought it would happen, but it did because I became aware of me and where I needed to back off.

  5. I’m wiping away tears. I really needed this today.

    We waited until our son started showing signs of readiness around 3 1/2 years, quit diapers cold-turkey, and tried the intense 3-day method with a timer going off every 30 minutes. I almost lost my mind. I remember SOBBING because my expectations, which had been so high – he’s so bright, and I was sure he would pick it up immediately because we waited until just the right time (or so I thought) – were not met.

    Five months later, well, there have been ups and downs. For a while, he had peeing down and only pooped in his pants. Then we had a whole blissful month accident-free. We thought we were done! Now, for some unknown reason, he’s just regressed and doesn’t seem to care. We’re back to having accidents (peeing and pooping) everyday.

    We’ve leaned on sticker charts and toys as rewards, and I’m realizing that may have been a mistake. It sounds like our son is very similar in personality or preferences to the boy in this podcast, so this advice is especially helpful. Our son will be four in less than two weeks and, once again, I’ve been putting pressure and high expectations on both him and myself, and I’m just…tired. I’m searching for answers so I can try to fix it, and this gently reminded me this is *his* journey, and I have to let go so that he can.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Kelly! You can do this! You are so welcome. Keep believing in yourself as his wonderful mom. This experience is a journey for all of us.

  6. What advice do you have for parents who are “done” changing diapers (or with any one thing for that matter)? I was done, I hated it. Thankfully my daughter really took to using the toilet at almost 3. I told her she needed to use the potty to go to school. She was so excited about school she was like ok! I had to figure out my nerves about it and relax about it, diapers were convenient and made our schedule easy. I just hated hated changing her poop. I appreciate “when they’re ready,” and as a parent I’ve also experienced the “I just don’t know if I can do this one more time,” which makes patience so hard!

  7. My son is in a similar position except he now refuses to wear a diaper because he is so proud of his underware and is awesome at peeing. I keep offering diapers for pooping…he refuses. He can’t make it to the potty so lots and lots of poops in underware which he is horrified about. I don’t know where to go from here? Any thoughts Janet?

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