Potty Training the Super-Resistant Kid
My daughter is 3 and a quarter and not yet potty trained. We have been trying on and off since she was two and a half but made no real progress. She shows all the signs of being completely ready – stays dry for hours, knows what the potty/toilet is for, can pull down her own pants, accompanies all of us to the bathroom with interest. But she just refuses to use the potty.
I’ve tried boot camp on several occasions and here’s what happens – she holds it for hours, hopping around grabbing her crotch but completely refusing to sit on the potty. We have stickers, candy, a reward chart, everything! She doesn’t care. Eventually she soils herself out of desperation. The situation never improves. The longest we’ve kept going like this is two weeks, day after day of holding pee and poop until she physically couldn’t anymore and then just going in her clothes. Eventually I gave up and went back to diapers.
I keep waiting for some new sign of readiness but it hasn’t materialized. And I’m reluctant to keep trying the same approach over and over again when it keeps failing. Can you suggest another tactic? She starts preschool in September and she must be trained by then. I thought that would be a breeze – she’ll be almost four by then! But now I’m starting to be seriously concerned. She is in all other respects a happy, healthy developmentally-on-track little girl.
Many thanks for your wonderful advice.
It’s actually not all that unusual for kids to resist potty training until 4 years old (or even 5), and unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all tactic for these super stubborn kids. You can go completely hands off and wait for some miraculous “I’ve changed my mind and will now use the potty (because my friends do/diapers are for babies/I’m just here to drive you crazy)” type event, but with a school deadline looming, that can definitely be risky and anxiety inducing. (Although this submission is from farther back in the question queue so I’m sort of hoping OP will pop up in the comments with an “all good now, here’s what worked” update.) So let’s see if we can come up with a course of action.
The reason boot camp is failing is because she won’t even sit on the potty, so there’s no chance of even accidental success. And the early accidental successes of just getting their butt on the toilet at the right time (even if they were completely okay coasting towards an accident) are pretty much essential to that particular tactic’s overall success. I physically picked my children up and put them on the potty at first, using a timer. I would then crouch in front of them with my hands (gently) holding their legs, or crossing my arms across their lap. (Let me make it clear I was not restraining them in any way, just blocking the “exit” a bit and using my hands/arms like a hug, or the comfort of weighted blanket.) We’d then stay like that for set amount of time. This time was kept super pleasant, with books, toys, Angry Birds game on my phone, whatever. Every 20/30 minutes we did this, and I definitely upped their fluid intake a TON so they very quickly hit the limit of how long they could hold it in. (And I used prunes/prune juice when we were trying for poop to prevent holding/constipation issues.) Eventually we’d get lucky with our timing, and they could experience all the good praise and incentives that potty training involved, so we’d create a tiny bit of forward momentum.
Since she’s on the bigger and more stubborn side, I’m assuming you aren’t able to just pick her up and put her down. But so far you’ve been unable to get her to sit on her own at all. Is she afraid? Does she need a different kind of potty seat or seat adapter? Can you coax her to sit while wearing her diaper? She’s capable of full independence and is comfortable with accompanying you, but somewhere along the way it’s possible that the physical act of sitting on the toilet herself became A Thing. So you’ll need to work on making it not A Thing. If she’s a fairly regular pooper, let her wear her diaper but ask her to sit on the potty while she goes. And definitely offer a reward.
As for the rewards, you really do need to find SOMETHING she cares about. And cares deeply about. Stickers and candy aren’t cutting it, so get creative. My son was a two-stage trainer…we got pee down but poop was still not happening a full year later. Eventually I made just about every request he made conditional on pooping on the potty. Oh you want that toy? Sure, after you poop on the potty. You want a cupcake? POOP ON THE POTTY. Eventually I hit upon the right “carrot:” His own copy of a Disney movie he’d only ever watched with his grandparents. For whatever reason, that did it. We ended up watching that movie every time he went for about a week before finally being like, “Okay dude, you got it, enough.”
(Another one of my sons trained after I bought him a HUGE stuffed Hulk toy, but stuck it on a high shelf outside the bathroom. He needed X number of star stickers to get it. Accidents cost him a star, and basically he just needed to go one full day successfully to get the toy. It took him two or three days, I believe, but having the toy within sight but out of reach kept him REALLY focused on trying.)
So try to figure out your daughter’s carrot. What’s super important to her? Some big special toy or trip? Has she toured her preschool and is she excited about going? She’s going to need a major incentive to cut through her stubborn streak (and possible fear/trepidation).
So step one is figuring out how to convince her to at least sit on the potty. She can wear her diaper, she doesn’t have to “do” anything, she just needs to sit and see there’s really nothing super scary about it. She’s not going to fall in, it’s not going to flush on its own, etc. Reward her for this success, then step two is to figure out what you can make conditional on her actually using the potty on her own. It probably will need to be something big, something she’s super focused on.
As for the accidents in her clothes…have you tried “naked potty training boot camp?” For some reason being completely naked works better for some kids than clothes or even just big kid underwear. Since pulling her pants down isn’t a skill you’re working on, maybe try keeping her naked. She can get her clothes back when she shows you that she can keep them clean and dry.
If she does soil her clothes, this sounds gross and mean…but don’t change her out of them right away. Or offer her any help. I know you went two full weeks of clothing accidents but unless you made her deal with the mess herself, there might have been a missed opportunity. Make her take the wet clothes off all by herself, take them to the laundry, and then get redressed. If she has an accident while naked, she needs to help clean that up as well. (Just offer her a towel, you do the actual cleaning with cleaning products.) It’s super annoying, but some kids really do need to get tired of the wet, cold, messy business of accidents before finally copping to the fact that it’s just easier to use the stupid potty in the first place. ESPECIALLY if the right incentive is involved (which ain’t gonna be stickers or candy in this case). The positive needs to outweigh the negative.
So I think your main area of focus should be the right incentives. She needs to care about what you’re offering. First for just SITTING on the potty at set times throughout the day. You don’t have to do it boot camp style, just offer a trade whenever she asks for something. She wants a popsicle/cookie/juice box? Ok, you can have it while you sit on the potty. Once that seems to not be A Thing anymore, up the ante with something she really, really, REALLY wants. You can do it in a non-boot-camp approach (in pull-ups or diapers, provided she knows how to remove them), or have another go buck naked, or with enforced consequences for accidents (she either stays wet/uncomfortable or deals with wet clothing herself).
Either way, she WILL potty train…eventually. Either because you tried something that “worked” or she just changed her mind about it one day. Neither of those things is guaranteed to happen on your preschool timeline, unfortunately. “Eventually” is a crapshoot, but luckily every potty-training parent hits on it. You know, eventually.Published May 2, 2016. Last updated March 13, 2018.