Potty Training Basics: how to handle children’s fears during potty training

Fears are a normal part of childhood. Fears might be a small isolated moment when your child is face-to-face with something unfamiliar. A simple explanation, a helpful suggestion, or a hand to hold might be all your child needs to move forward. Sometimes all your child needs is a familiar context—“Hey, this toilet looks different than ours. Look at all the ways it’s the same as the one in our bathroom.” Rational support can help in situations where the fears are specific and clear.

Other times, fears are deep and developmental. The potty training years coincide with a time of sweeping emotional growth. The deepest fear may not be the toilet at all—it may be the more developmental struggle with separation. Separation struggles recur all through childhood as your child grows slowly and steadily into a person—sleeping, crawling, walking, pottying, going to school, and making friends.

Young children often cannot express new complex emotions verbally and rationally. Your child cannot calmly say, “I’m afraid if I fall in that big toilet, I’ll slip into the drain and never see you again.” Or, as one three-year-old told her mother after weeks of distress, “I want to wear my diaper to bed because I don’t want to get old and die.”

Before you can calm your child’s fears, you must grow comfortable with your own. Children have to face some fears in order to grow emotionally. It isn’t easy to see your child struggle, but it is necessary.

How should I respond to potty fears?

Responding to your child’s potty fears is as easy as A-B-C.

Acknowledge—never dismiss a fear as trivial or nonsense. Your child’s fear may not be rational to you as an adult, but it always adheres to the standards of child-logic. You may not know where it originates. It may contradict good sense. But it is “real” to your child. Respect what your child feels with a compassionate adult perspective.
• Balance your response between comfort and power. Your child has an adult partner by her side, someone who can sincerely reassure her that she is safe and capable. It’s a fine balance: too much “safe” and you slip into an overprotective mode, robbing your child of her skill-building; too much “capable,” and you rob your child of the emotional growth that parallels the behavioral growth.
• Conquer together or alone. Every fear is an opportunity. Solutions will be personal, but there must be some sort of resolution. When possible, let your child decide what to do. Present your child with a few options—sometimes she just needs help knowing what to do next. Then she can conquer the fear “alone.” Sometimes, she’s willing to act but needs your hand or the physical reassurance that she is not alone. Other times, you will have to act “alone” but with her watching as you act as a brave and resourceful role model.

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