Potty training creates real anxiety and anguish in parents. There is no other developmental milestone that requires parents to be an active participant. Nobody wakes up one morning and declares to their 1-year-old, “Today is the day you are going to give up crawling and start to walk!” Through natural development children slowly learn to stand on their own and then take their first steps. There is nothing parents do to ‘make’ their children walk, it just happens. In toilet training parents have more of an active role. When the potty training stage begins some parents get lucky and have a child who wants to wear big kid underpants and basically trains themselves, but most likely that won’t happen. In fact, quite literally you will wake up one morning and say to your child, “Today is the day you will start wearing big kid underpants and make in the potty!”
So, why do parents cringe at the thought of potty training? Simply, both parents and children each feel a separate and distinct internal tug-of-war. Parents worry that they may be ‘pushing’ their children while at the same time worrying about not helping their child enough through this important milestone. For children, on one hand they want to be a big kid, and on another hand, they still want to remain a baby. Additionally, there is also a sense of loss in toilet training, which does not exist in any other stage of development. A loss for the parent and the child. For the parents, there is a loss of losing their baby and moving onto a new more grown-up stage. For the toddler, there is a loss of losing his diapers which underscores his feeling of ambivalence. The child thinks, “If I am so grown-up will Mommy and Daddy still take care of me?” This feeling of ambivalence is the hallmark emotion of 2-year-olds. Parents have all experienced this scenario, one day their 2-year-old wants to get dressed all by himself and the next day they are on the floor refusing to put on their clothes and only wants Mommy to dress them. These feelings of ambivalence and the inner tug-of-war that parents and children feel are the sources for the conflict that can occur during this potty training stage.
For most families, the readiness to begin potty training is more about the parent’s readiness and willingness, not the child’s. The key to success lies in understanding that this process is your child’s responsibility to use the toilet. If a parent takes it on themselves, by placing their child on the toilet, bribing or cajoling him, they will lengthen the process by making going to the potty more important to the parent than to the child. As parents, if we can take a step back and see this as your toddler’s internal struggle between wanting to be a big kid and wanting to stay little, you will be able to guide your child through his process with less tension and emotion.
Written by: Courtney Evenchik, MA, NCSP
Director of School Psychology Services