Written by Doctor G

Potty-training Battle

Dr. G, Our son is 3 yrs old. He’ll be 4 in just a matter of 1.5 months. He has been refusing to potty train. We did well for a short while but now he wants nothing to do with the potty and even tries to hide the fact that he soiled his training pant. We have tried many things but nothing seems to work. Perhaps you have some ideas?

Alaina, in PA

Alaina, this is such a normal battle! Here is the perfect recipe for a toddler power struggle: something you care about greatly, but that he has complete control over the outcome.

You have two choices. Find a way to make using the toilet important to him, or relax and wait.

Most parents try to make potty-training important to kids. We try prizes, stickers, praise, even candy (I really don’t recommend this last one!). Also, parents often try scolding, time outs, threats or other negative consequences. Occasionally parents will find a long-term motivator that really speaks to their child, like “You’re only allowed to join that dance class if you use big girl underwear. Do you want to go?”

For some children these work well. It sounds like for your son they have not had continued success.

Many parents feel that a potty-trained child signals successful parenting, and that a four year old in diapers means they are parenting failures. This is NOT true.

Some kids hate change. Some kids care more about autonomy than making their parents happy. Some kids would just rather play than bother with self-toileting.

If you have the strength, I would encourage you to completely change your behavior regarding his potty training. You’ll have to get your co-parent on board, of course. Here’s what you do:
1. Go buy some diapers or pull-ups.
2. Tomorrow morning, when it is time to get dressed, have him put on underwear.
3. Let him know that you hope he’ll be dry and clean, and if not he’ll spend the rest of the day in a diaper.
4. If he wets or dirties his underwear, don’t scold him. You can be a little disappointed, but hold back your emotional reaction.
5. Clean him up, and put him in the diaper instead. Leave him in a diaper the rest of the day.
6. If he’d like to try big kid underwear the next morning, he may. If not, start with a diaper.
7. Wait for him to express interest in using the toilet.

I know that this sounds like a huge step back. It is not. This is you being honest with your son and yourself: toilet training is his decision, not yours. Once you remove the battle and struggle from the equation, he can decide for himself to potty-train.

He will find motivation to wear big kid underwear. Usually this happens when his friends are all big kids and he is still in diapers. The less you seem to care about this, the more he can choose to care about it himself.

He may not be daytime potty-trained until he is 4 ½ years old. More likely, you will leave it alone for a few weeks and then, in February you’ll ask if he’d like to give underwear a try and he’ll say yes. Or you’ll find an activity he wants to join in the spring, but he needs to be potty-trained to participate.

Just remember, the age at which your child is potty trained is not a reflection of your ability as a parent. If he knows to say please and thank you, your parenting is already pretty great!

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