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Potty Training the Completely Stubborn, Unmotivated Kid

Apr08

by

Hey,

I’ve just got done reading your early potty training advice column and am at home for the fifth day in a row with my sickly three year old. So I’m perhaps not in the best frame of mind to be dealing with her training issues as they stand. Being all full of the cabin fever does not a happy mother make. But, because I appreciate the advice you give, I’m going there.

My daughter turned three a couple of weeks ago. She has little to no interest in toilet training. She will not sit on the toilet when offered, unless as a delay tactic for bed or as a means to trick me into believing she will ever use a toilet like a big girl. She will not go commando, or wear underwear. So it is nappies all the time.

She is capable of weeing on the toilet and has done so on different occasions, to much praise and enthusiasm from her father and me. She has even stopped mid wee and waited to finish it on the toilet, should it happen during bathtime for example.

When we talk about what big kids do and ask if she is a big kid, she is both adamant that she is and that big kids use the toilet. But when it comes to walking the walk, or weeing the wee, it doesn’t happen.

I know it’s wrong to compare kids because they all develop differently etc. But we were recently visiting family in Australia (we live in Sweden) and my cousin’s just turned two year old is already toilet trained. All my mother’s group kids are trained. Only my munchkin is way behind the rest.

I guess my question is, what do you do with a stubborn kid who refuses to sit when the opportunity is offered? Just wait until she asks to go? Is there anything I can do to help rather than waiting for her to ask to go to the toilet? I don’t want to be perpetually asking her if she wants to go. But I don’t want to do nothing either.

My cabin fevered brain is feeling somewhat like a failure as a parent because I cannot work out how to get madam to use the toilet, to want to use the toilet. We have encouraged and offered and talked it up. But still nothing. (And we started talking it up last summer, so since June 2013)

Tell me that she will eventually train. Tell me that we aren’t doing it entirely wrong. And please let me know what we can do from here. Every bit of advice I’ve read is pretty much sit a child on a toilet at regular intervals when you have them at home and praise them effusively for success. But she just won’t sit there, and is a determined child.

Thanks for reading the whinge from a cooped up Aussie living in Sweden.

Cheers,

Kate

Ah yes, dispatches from the OTHER end of the potty-training spectrum. A perfectly-capable but stubborn-beyond-all-comprehension 3 year old. And 3-year-old stubbornness is pretty much the worst kind of stubbornness. Epic peak stubbornness, and I speak from experience.

(My youngest turns 3 in two months. It’s all already coming back to me — so stubborn! so irrational! much no, very argument, such screaming, wow! — and it’s more than solidifying our decision to not have any more children. I would have babies constantly, if I could, but I am simply done having 3 year olds, you guys.)

So here’s what you do:

1) Put the cabin fever to work. You’re going to boot camp her, cold-turkey style.

2) Get rid of the diapers. All of them. Hide them. Toss them. Donate them. Whatever.

3) Get a ton of rags/towels and floor/carpet/upholstery cleaner.

4) Find an incentive. Make it big, make it serious. It can be something new (you’ll take her somewhere super special, or you’ll buy her a specific thing), OR it can be a privilege that will go away until until she uses the potty (no TV, no more of a specific DVD/activity/food treat, etc.).

5) Hang on to your butts. IT’S POTTY TIME.

Tell her the day before that it’s time to say goodbye to diapers, and hello to underwear. Starting tomorrow, there will be no more diapers. Full stop! Not up for debate! It’s honestly not even Mommy’s decision! It just is what it is! But it’s going to be okay and you know she can do it, and if she uses the potty [big awesome incentive] will happen! Yay! I can’t wait for tomorrow and to say hello to underwear! Ignore any arguments or protests because it’s not up for discussion — basically imagine she’s arguing that she wants to go outside even though it’s raining. Nope. Not gonna happen. 

The next morning, it begins.

The trickiest part is actually number 4 — if you can hit on the right incentive at the right time, steps 1 – 3 can be blasted through in less than a day or two, at this age. But the opposite can happen if you offer something they just don’t care that much about (or is too abstract of an idea — try to find a picture of whatever it is and hang it up by the potty). If you take away an existing privilege (like no TV/screen time), you’ll likely be “tested” for awhile before they get that you’re really super serious about it, and oh yes, there will be epic tantrums. So maybe I should include step 4a, which is to apply a liberal dose of wine and earplugs.

But yes, you’re going to have to go cold turkey on diapers. If she even senses that they’re an option, she will remain entirely unmotivated. Her “I’m a big girl and big girls use the potty” repetition is meaningless, as diapers aren’t a source of embarrassment for her, or holding her back from doing/getting something awesome. She doesn’t care…yet, anyway. The trick is to make her care.

And she might care about constantly having accidents — particularly if she’s expected to stop what she’s doing and clean the mess up. Make her take her own wet clothes off and walk them to the hamper. Make her put clean clothes back on. Make her mop up the puddle with a towel, dispose of the towel, wash her hands. EVERY. TIME. (You obviously go back and clean up properly, but she should go through the full motions.)

This might feel like you’re setting her up to fail, but by maintaining the right attitude — super calm, matter-of-fact, absolutely NO anger/scolding/shame — you are simply giving her full control over the situation. (Control that she already has, honestly, but just not in the way you want.) When we say goodbye to diapers, this is what happens. When you feel like you gotta go, you gotta sit on the potty. When you go on the floor, we have to clean it up. And dude, we can do this ALL DAY. This is all we’ve got on going on today, and tomorrow. And the day after that. Over and over. Or you can just sit on the potty and get [big awesome incentive] instead. You’re totally in charge here.

(Aside, on the whole “but what about naps and bedtime before we’ve had any success” question. The cold-turkey boot-camp approach books and articles I’ve read are all pretty adamant that you shouldn’t revert to diapers AT ALL once you’ve started, particularly with older children. I’ve always ignored that since I didn’t believe my kids were physically ready to stay dry while sleeping at 2/2.5, as it’s a separate developmental thing and generally happens later for boys. We usually skipped naps entirely for the first couple days to avoid messing up any shred of momentum, and then emphasized that diapers were ONLY for bedtime. You want a diaper? You go to bed. This isn’t necessarily a perfect approach either — it can set up issues with kids “holding” in number two when they know a diaper is coming at a specific time of day and prolongs that aspect of training. So if you think your daughter is physically mature enough and have the nerves to deal with a bed-wetting incident or two, feel free to buy a really good mattress protector and go SUPER cold turkey.)

Don’t ask if she has to use the potty at first. You’re going to hear “no” every darn time and it’s going to be a bald-faced LIE at least 50% of the time. Set a timer — every 25 minutes if you’re pumping her full of liquids, 45 minutes otherwise — and when the timer goes off pick her up and physically take her to the potty. Set another timer (5 minutes or so) and tell her she can’t get up until it sounds. Sit on a stool in front of her and prevent her from getting off, keeping your hands on her if you have to. Obviously you don’t want to get into a wrestling match with her so do whatever you can to make it pleasant — books, songs, funny games, a small drink of chocolate milk, whatever.

(If she’s into Elmo, I used an app called Elmo Calls for my youngest — Elmo would “call” him on my phone and a short video would play while Elmo “talked” to him. There was a 99-cent add-on package of calls related to potty training, so Elmo would cheer him on and encourage him to keep trying. Magic!)

If — by the miracle Grabthar’s Hammer — she actually pees in the potty during one of these sessions, make a huge freaking deal out of it. Call Daddy or Grandma on the phone. Reward her with something small and fun, immediately. If your main incentive is something that you don’t want to give her until she’s more consistent, let her put a sticker or magnet on a chart. (Something simple and visual with like, five boxes in a row with a picture of her prize at the end.)

Since you’ve had successes already and she’s clearly familiar with the whole potty concept, I am actually VERY optimistic that your daughter will respond pretty quickly — hopefully within a day or two. She’ll go to the potty on her own, without prompting from you and that’ll be the moment when Everything Changes For The Better. I really think it’s the diapers and lack of a clear, super-desirable incentive that are holding her back at this point. You’ve tried presenting the potty as something desirable in and of itself — it’s what big kids use! it’s great! it makes Mommy and Daddy so happy and proud of you! — and she’s basically been like, “yeah, no, pass. I’ll stick with what I know.” By adding a really cool incentive/goal to the proceedings and while simultaneously removing any idea that the potty is optional, you’ll hopefully break through her current stubbornness and actually get her motivated.

She absolutely WILL train — all kids do, I swear. It’s possible that you can ignore everything I’ve said so far and she’ll still wake up one morning and decide to use the potty like a rational human being all on her own. But there are kids who just don’t come to that magical eureka moment without help. And if you suspect your daughter might be one of them, I do have to warn you that kids don’t necessarily get any LESS stubborn and determined at 3 and a half. (Oh lord, have mercy on us both.)

 

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Potty Training the Completely Stubborn, Unmotivated Kid”

  1. Caroline Apr 08 at 11:52 am Reply Reply

    Hello…

    my second son was very reluctant, insisted he didn’t want to at a few weeks short of 3. So I did what grown up decision makers do; I made the decision for him. I took away the nappies (DURING THE DAY, not at night!) and put him in some cute undies I knew he’d like (SpongeBob fyi) and then set him free at nursery school (obv I had the buy-in of the teacher – it was a tiny play school). He had a major poo accident within an hour and she was brilliant, cleaned him up with little comment other than to say that it was really horrible and yucky and that big boys go to the loo when they need to wee or poo, used cold water (not freezing, just not terribly pleasant)… and that was that. Of course, he did have one or two very minor wee accidents related to being too busy playing to go to the loo, as I think most littlies do. Again, very little comment, but the clean up was… abrupt… And that was the end. Took about 3 days. This is one of those times when you call the shots and they fall in line, not like with early potty training where of course you must wait till the child is physically ready. It’s a bit like sleeping through the night when you are very sure the child is entirely capable of doing it and yet they aren’t. You just tell them how it’s going to be and leave them to it. Works within a very short time, because you calmly mean business. But NB! You cannot back down. You must do exactly what you say you will do… this is vital…

  2. Caroline Apr 08 at 11:56 am Reply Reply

    Forgot to say during my ”essay” that I skipped the potty completely, just used a toilet seat attachment, it just seemed to cut the preliminaries and be a whole lot cleaner AND promote the idea of the bathroom / toilet being where we go to the toilet, nowhere else. I didn’t go wild with incentives beyond obviously praising good efforts and maybe a very small sweetie for the first couple of days. It was just ”your brother does it, I do it, we all do it, the end”.

    • IrishCream Apr 08 at 2:19 pm Reply Reply

      Ditto to both of those…used the Baby Bjorn seat adaptor, which had the added bonus of being easily portable, and used M&Ms for incentives, nothing big.

  3. Amanda Apr 08 at 12:07 pm Reply Reply

    This could have been written by me 3 months ago. Good to hear I wasn’t alone in having a very smart, stubborn kid who seemed to have no interest in the potty. HOWEVER, the best advice I received was the opposite of ‘boot camp’, believe me, I tried that with all the steps and nuances observed. Absolutely ZERO success. What finally worked for us was BACKING OFF COMPLETELY until she showed an interest, and then charting with small prizes(bribes) like stickers and fruit snacks. I was ready for a rest by then anyway lol, and it let her regain control of the potty situation and the power struggle was removed. And then, as the above advice suggests, a string of successes proved to her how uncomfortable the whole diapering thing really was, and she bought into it completely with very few accidents! PHEW. So anyway, that’s our story. But I think the important thing to remember is that children are different! We feel the need for A PLAN as the mommy, let’s just get this DONE already. I’ve fallen into that trap so many times with my first – and heard so many success stories about the ‘boot camp’. But they are not ready until they’re ready, and sometimes no amount of ‘boot camp’ will get the job done. Good luck!

    • Michele Apr 08 at 2:12 pm Reply Reply

      +1. My son was almost 4 when we started (and we’re still working on it). All attempts to really push him before he was interested (even though he had all the “readiness” signs) just turned into a frustrating power struggle. Waiting is a good tactic as well.

  4. Kate Apr 08 at 12:24 pm Reply Reply

    So, what do you do with a kid who’s basically the opposite. Just shy of 2.5, seriously interested and asks to go all the time but has zero body awareness. She’ll insist she has to go, sit on the potty way longer than I think is good for her, and 10 min later pee on the floor. Plus, every time she has a little gas she thinks she pooped. It’s been months of this and it’s driving me crazy. I just don’t have the time (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours in the bathroom every day for absolutely no result but I also don’t want to tell her she can’t go in the potty (although we have said this when she’s asked to go right as we’re tucking her in).

    I’ve potty trained or at least helped potty potty train multiple kids before and have never hit this particular issue.

    • Amanda Apr 08 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

      How about a prize ONLY if she ‘produces’ ON the potty? And only after she’s through. That really helped when mine finally got the potty bug and wanted to read books in there for 30 min a million times a day. Also we childproofed heavily and would just walk away (staying nearby for suspicious noises lol). She was less inclined to hang out without an audience.

  5. IrishCream Apr 08 at 2:16 pm Reply Reply

    The boot camp method worked with my daughter at 2yrs 11months, and she had similar issues regarding motivation. Yes, the potty is for big girls, yes, I am a big girl, no, I will not sit on the potty, hell to the no. Removing the diaper option all together was the way to go for us, and she was 99% day trained within 48 hours.

    In terms of your stress about being the only parent whose kids isn’t potty trained…I know plenty of kids who aren’t trained at three. My daughter’s best buddy is 3.5, and she is only kind of trained for pee, and will not poop on the potty at all. All kids are stubborn about something, and some kids pick the potty as their hill to die on. This too shall pass!

  6. Kendra Apr 08 at 2:24 pm Reply Reply

    3 year olds are definitely the worst kind of stubborn! I am right there with you. That is all.

  7. Trish Apr 08 at 2:40 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, you are not alone. We were there last year with our 3-year-old. Someone recommended “Oh Crap Potty Training” to us (might have even been this blog?), and we generally followed it. We used small consequences when she refused the potty but obviously had to go. (No consequence, only praise if she made a good-faith effort to get to the potty but did not make it). We tried rewards first, we tried waiting until she showed interest, and they had zero effect, but no TV or taking away the toy whenever she did the peepee dance but refused the potty did the trick. All kids are different, your mileage may vary, but my daughter is bright, highly verbal, and stubborn to a fault. Now she is 4 and fully trained, although she will still have accidents because she waits too long.

  8. Karen Apr 08 at 3:54 pm Reply Reply

    Had the same experience here. Week of her third bday, we removed diapers, I put the floor potty in the living room, gave her a cup of water and turned on a movie. Took her 3 hours of holding it but she went, in the potty, and that was it. Never had a pee accident again. Everything up until that point had been an unproductive stress struggle. She is now 4.5 and we are did away with pullups at night a couple weeks ago. Have pee 1-2x a week but making progress.

    Two things – 1. prepare yourself for problems with going poop in the toilet. She pooped in her underwear for months. and 2. I would not use incentives on a three year old. For us it opened up a huge separate issue of only going for m&m’s, holding it for too long if there were no incentives. My big aha moment was when I realized that going with no incentive for a three year old was way easier on everyone.

    Good luck.

  9. Jeannie Apr 08 at 4:21 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have much advice — I was extremely lucky in that for both my kids, their part time toddler care started the process for us, and when someone else helped out, it somehow made it much easier for me.

    But I did want to say I laughed at your depictions of three year olds … I’m much the same way. Love babies. Love my school aged kid. My daughter is turning four in three weeks, and I am counting the days. Not that everything gets better at four, just that it does start (has already started, really). Fact is I love kids, love babies, but 3 year olds … wow. Could easily have another if it wasn’t for the thought of another three year old!

    Best of luck with the potty, OP. Rest assured that no matter what option you choose, at some point there will come along an incentive that matters to your daughter, and she will just up and do this thing. It’ll happen!

  10. A Apr 08 at 9:27 pm Reply Reply

    Highly recommend “Oh Crap Potty Training” too.  Also recommend not using an incentive.  At this age it is just a power struggle that she’s winning, so she would just turn the incentive in to one as well.  

  11. Natalie Apr 09 at 8:21 am Reply Reply

    Grabthar’s hammer….I LOVE YOU AMY!

  12. Heather Apr 09 at 10:02 am Reply Reply

    This was my daughter. To the t, exactly the same situation. She hit three and we said enough is enough with the stubborn yet completely capable. When she had an accident, she got a sad face from us, and had to sit in time out (on tile floor) in her wet clothes until we cleaned up the mess. Then she had to do the thing with putting her clothes in the washer. Cleaning the floor and her was always time consuming so it just took two days. And she never wet the bed. Ever. Of course, being very stubborn about stopping playing, she has developed amazon bladder control. Which means no accidents, but she will sometimes go all afternoon all night until the next morning holding it. Good luck!

  13. Grammy Apr 09 at 7:52 pm Reply Reply

    One note of caution about the super-duper incentive: Make it very clear what the special thing is. My grandson was the stubbornest kid I’ve ever known regarding potty training, and everyone who knew him was just flat-out worn out when he was approaching his 4th birthday and was still insisting that he needed a diaper to poop in. The whole family came up with one bribe after another, but none of them special enough to get him to cooperate. My son-in-law finally struck gold: Go poop in the toilet and you get a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, with all the game tokens you want.

    The day he cheerfully announced he had to go potty and went, all by himself, his dad followed through on the reward. Next day he was at the grandparents’ house, and much encouragement and praise ensued. He pooped in the toilet again and said, “Okay. We go to Chuck E. Cheese!” No one had thought to make it clear that the big trip to eat pizza and play games was a one-time deal. He considered it a profound betrayal that it wasn’t going to be an every-time thing.

  14. Emily Huston Apr 15 at 8:21 am Reply Reply

    Thanks for this great guide! This guidance is really going to work for my DS in his further growth and training. Right now he is just 6 and think it would be so early to start with as he has just started sitting with back support. 

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