The transition from
diapers to toilet use is an important one in a child’s development.
If parents are patient and non-pressuring as their child learns to
use the toilet, the family will get through this stage easily.
But if they try to force toilet-training, this stage may cause a lot
of anger and unhappiness.
Parents often initiate early toilet-training because they feel a
great deal of pressure. Nursery schools and day care centers want
children to be trained, and friends and relatives offer criticism:
“You were trained at two! What’s wrong with your child?” “You really
should start toilet-training him.” There’s often competition among
parents to see who has the youngest toilet-trained child, as though
toilet-training were a race. Many people mistakenly feel that the
faster a child develops (and the sooner he’s toilet-trained), the
smarter or better he is.
Aside from starting toilet-training in response to pressure, many
parents start because they don’t believe their child will acquire
the skill on his own. Although they have seen their child learn to
crawl, walk, and talk, they find it hard to trust that he’ll also
use the toilet when he’s ready.
Children can train themselves, but the ages at which they’re able to
do so vary since in this, as in all areas of development, some
children are ready sooner than others. Between two and three, most
gain enough bladder and bowel control to be able to use the toilet
on their own, although some don’t use the toilet until they are
three and one- half. Emotional factors such as the birth of a
sibling, a move, or a mother going back to work can delay a child’s
Often, children show an interest in the toilet at eighteen months,
but parents should not take this as a sign that a child is ready for
toilet training. At this age, a child’s body is not mature enough
and any toilet use will be controlled by his parents. He’s just
temporarily interested in flushing the toilet, tearing toilet paper,
and imitating the other members of his family. Some children under
two are afraid of the toilet. It’s large, and they fear they’ll fall
in or be flushed down and disappear. A small potty seat is less
frightening, but many children won’t use one, insisting on the same
toilet the rest of the family uses.
If parents initiate toilet-training before their child is ready, the
whole family may suffer. Parents use up a great deal of energy
putting him on the toilet every twenty minutes, constantly praising
or scolding him, doing the extra laundry and cleanup that results
from freequent accidents, and working out reward systems using candy
or stars to motivate their child. It’s particularly difficult for
parents to handle the resistance of a two-year-old who reacts
negatively to any parental pressure or suggestions. At that age, a
child strives for autonomy and wants to assert himself and take
charge of all aspects of his life: “I can do it myself” Certainly
there are some children who are easily trained by their parents, and
other children who quickly learn to use the toilet because they
temporarily fear losing their parents’ love and acceptance. But most
are not successfully trained if their parents start too soon.
Often, all of the efforts backfire, and the child becomes strongly
opposed to using the toilet. This situation can develop because he
has been over-praised for toilet use. Once he sees how important the
issue is to his parents and how happy they are when he goes to the
bath room, he may realize on some level how unhappy he can make them
by Lot going. This may become his weapon in power struggles.
Toilet-training efforts also can backfire because he has been
pressed too hard to be “a big boy.” Sometimes he feels so anxious
about disappointing his parents that he won’t even try using the
toilet for fear of failure. Finally, a child who doesn’t like to be
pushed and controlled might try to exert his own power by rejecting
his parents’ suggestions. Rather than use the toilet, he might
become constipated or else urinate or have a bowel movement as soon
as he’s taken off the toilet, soiling the floor or his pants. If
parents feel they must initiate toilet-training, they should hold
off until he’s three and make sure training doesn’t interfere with
other developmental changes.
The best approach is simply to wait until the child is ready to
start on his own. Children have an innate drive to grow and develop
a strong desire to imitate and please their parents, and
determination to do things for themselves. All of these urges will
come together if he’s not pressured to use the toilet before he’s
physically and emotionally ready. It takes a great deal of patience
and confidence in your child to wait. But eventually he will let you
know that he wants to use the toilet. Offer support and help: “Would
you like me to turn on the light? Can I help you with your pants?”
You can give simple acknowledgment of what he’s done or you might
want to reflect back to him his own pleasure and pride.
Once he’s initiated toilet use, he’ll quickly give up diapers.
However, even past four years old, he’ll occasionally have accidents
because of stress or he’ll forget to get to a bathroom on time
because he will be too busy playing. As long as you haven’t
excessively praised him or shamed him for his previous toilet use
and accidents, he won’t feel too bad when he wets.
Your attitudes towards toilet-training determine, in large part, how
successful this phase of your child’s development will be. If you
anticipate struggles, you’ll probably have them. But if you’re
relaxed and willing to let your child set the pace, you and he will
have an easier time.