Potty Training 101

black and white photo of unhappy boy

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

It may seem from reading my blog that I claim to be a parenting expert. While I do feel that I have some interesting and worthwhile advice to offer parents on various topics, on the topic of getting children potty trained early, however, I am no expert at all. All of my boys trained very late.

Yet for potty training 101, I do have some advice to offer you,

and that is that toilet training is best done later when the child is emotionally ready for it, as opposed to pressuring him or her to train early or by some arbitrary age. Although the downside of training late is the inconvenience of dealing with diapers, not to mention preschool teachers who complain, pressuring or forcing children to train early can cause anxiety and emotional disorders! Punishment especially creates many more problems than it solves. See my report “To punish her not to punish,” at the bottom of this page, where I demonstrate that punishment usually doesn't work to correct behavior, and even when it does work it usually comes at a serious emotional cost. So harsh reprimands for not using the toilet may scare your child into using it, but the damage done to his emotional health far outweighs the benefits. Punishments and scoldings usually traumatize children and generate in them very unhealthy shame and anxiety.

little girl with toy train

The lesson of Potty Training 101: Finding a time that’s right for the child

Many parents feel it's a point of pride to have their child potty trained early. They feel that it's a sign that their child is advanced and therefore will be more advanced and successful in other things such as academics. However I disagree with this. I do not believe there's any correlation between early toilet training and higher rates of success later. In fact I believe the opposite is true, that the more a child learns to use the toilet at the time that is “Right for him” the more he will be emotionally healthy, and emotional health is what leads to a successful life. Some parents feel a sense of shame if their child is late in being trained, but this is totally uncalled for! Respecting the child’s natural rhythm and pace of maturation is what’s best for the child and is something to be proud of.

So now that I've passed Potty Training 101, how do you train a child? 

little girl in tunnel smiling

So how do you train a child in a way that's appropriate and doesn't damage his or her emotional health? The answer is we need to do it very gradually over a long period of time while having great patience. I recommend talking to the child many times a day, and very gently, about using the toilet for about six months, and eventually he will get the idea. Let him or her remain without a diaper for periods of time and ask very frequently, “Do you need to go?” “Would you like to sit on the toilet? Let's go sit on the toilet.” First make him aware that the possibility exists of using the potty. Present it as an interesting option that he might enjoy. Ask him, “Do you have to go to the bathroom?” to help him gain awareness of the urge. The rule is gentle encouragement. Diapers are the only thing he or she has ever known and abandoning them is a scary experience that needs to be encouraged, but not by making it more scary through pressure, punishment or threats. Rather we need to make him feel relaxed and comfortable about the idea of using the toilet. Every conversation and interaction with the child regarding potty training should be gentle and pleasant. This creates a positive association to the whole experience and he will be more motivated to explore using the toilet. Children have fear of new habits so in order to counter this fear we need to make everything associated with the toilet pleasant. The whole process of training needs to be relaxed. If there's pressure to go in the toilet it creates an unpleasant association with the whole experience and the child will want to avoid it. It is simply a matter of patient, persistent repetition. You can give him candy when he goes in the bowl or even when he stands in front of it or sits down for a little while, as this will create a positive association between the pleasure of the candy and the whole bathroom experience, and he will think, “Using the toilet is fun.” Instead of praising him or her, “I'm so proud of you, what a good boy you went in the toilet,” rather describe what he did, “You went in the toilet two times today,” “You took down your pull-ups all by yourself,” “You held it in all the way until we got home,” “You're learning how to use the toilet,” “You should be proud of yourself.” With this type of describing the child will draw his own conclusions that he is good and accomplished.

For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of praise, click here.

Remember that emotional health is the most important and most often overlooked element in any child’s well-being and success. We must guard and nurture it carefully. This is done principally through maintaining a warm, pleasant parent-child relationship. We should never sacrifice emotional health for the convenience of early potty training!

Please be aware that the above represents a parenting ideal, and one should not expect to fulfill it perfectly. Therefore have patience with yourself and try to implement these new ideas gradually. Feel free to peruse the rest of this informative blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my interesting free reports. If you found potty training 101 helpful, are facing challenges raising your child and would like professional guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

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