Toddlerhood is an age of tremendous emotional and psychological growth for your child—and potty training encompasses many of the issues that toddlers are sorting out: independence, self-regulation (mastery of his or her body) and social awareness.
Adults have spent years using the toilet, so we forget how hard it is for a child.
For a toddler who has spent their entire life in diapers thus far, noticing their urge to eliminate takes great attention and hard work. Consistently controlling that urge until they get to the potty is a major achievement.
Some children are motivated to master this because they don’t like the feeling of being wet or messy. Others are motivated by their urge for mastery or their desire to be like older children. The rest are motivated by their desire to emulate their parents, who they love and whose lead they want to follow.
Potty training assumes that we need to train the child, like a dog, and substitutes rewards and punishments for the child’s own natural desire for growth and achievement.
Because all children master this developmental step sooner or later, we can think of this as potty learning.
Like all learning, the child needs to be ready to learn and to proceed at their own pace. So follow your child’s lead! They are not going to do any of it until they are ready.
Don’t put pressure on your child—or yourself—by imposing time limits and structures on potty training.
Parents can provide encouragement and set up the conditions to help their child be successful.
All too often there are inadvertently imposed feelings of pressure and stress to accomplish this task, which can have negative long-term physical and emotional implications on your child, such as stool withholding, chronic constipation, anxiety with toileting, control battles and self-esteem issues.
So, never punish your child for accidents. While rewards can be effective to incentivize a child who is fearful about taking this big leap, punishment just increases the child’s fear.
Punishment actually makes it more difficult for the child to control his body because fear shuts down the learning centers of the brain.
What’s more, punishment erodes the relationship with the parent and therefore eliminates the child’s desire to follow the parent’s lead, which is his main motivation to do the hard work of potty learning.
When we punish a child who is not succeeding in learning to use the potty, he feels humiliated, ashamed and like giving up. He already didn’t know how to do this, and now he feels like a failure. He also feels wronged and angry. All of these tangled emotions make it more likely that the child will have more accidents.
Additionally, punishing kids about toileting always seems to result in more accidents. Most likely this is because the child stops seeing toileting as an opportunity for mastery and starts seeing it as a source of stress. We know that stress causes children to regress, and punishment is a huge stressor.
There are lots of incremental steps that most kids need to take to be potty-trained—so praise each one. Don’t just focus on praising the goal. If your child tells you he needs to pee, then does on the living room floor, try something like this: “That was great how you listened to your body and then told me you had to pee! Next time, let’s try to get the pee in the potty.”