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Potty Training Tips

Potty Training 101

by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
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When parents say, "I'm training my child to use the toilet," what they really mean is, "I'm training myself to remind my child to use the toilet." Unfortunately, this often turns into a power struggle, with parents saying, "You will," and children saying, "I won't. You can't make me." Parents use all kinds of tricks to win the potty training battle: treats, pleading, lectures, threats, and even punishment.

Although children naturally want to do what "big" people do, not every child is ready for potty training at the same time. Moreover, if parents push too early, training is likely to backfire, producing unwanted behaviors. Some children use it to get undue attention from their parents. Some turn it into a battleground to prove who is boss. Less assertive children can develop a sense of self-doubt or shame.

Many parents feel inadequate -- especially when they hear other parents brag about how early their children were potty trained. So, why do some children learn to use the toilet earlier than others? Does it really need to be said that children have different developmental timetables? Some kids begin to speak at 12 months; others at two years or older. One child I know didn't say a word until she was two-and-a-half, then spoke in full sentences and grew up to become valedictorian of her high school class! So it is with toilet training. Kids progress at their own pace.

The basic lesson of Potty Training 101 is for parents to relax. Wait until the summer after your child is 2 ½. Take the potty seat into the back yard (or into a blocked-off kitchen area where messes can easily be cleaned up). Bring along a good book and a comfortable chair for yourself and let your child run naked. Then read your book and observe your child at play. When you see her start to pee or poop, gently lead her to the potty chair. If she doesn't make it in time, kindly and firmly involve her in cleaning up the mess. The less fuss you make, the more interested she will become in the potty chair. There will still be accidents, but stick with it. Many children are trained within a week using this method.

Of course, there's more than one way to accomplish potty training. I know of one father who painted a bull's eye in the bottom of the toilet bowl. His son could hardly wait to try to hit the target! Other parents prefer to seek out a preschool that is willing to handle potty training. These facilities are equipped with small toilets and children learn quickly by watching other children.

Keep in mind, material rewards for potty training often invite power struggles. If a child expects to be rewarded for each "performance," pretty soon he won't perform without the reward. Better to allow him to experience the good feeling of accomplishment that comes from the new skill he is learning. (Note: If your child is not toilet trained by the time he is three years old, be sure to get a doctor's evaluation to determine if there is a physical problem. If there is no physical problem, you are probably involved in a power struggle. Guess who will win!)

Stop nagging. Teach your child how to change his own clothes. When an accident occurs, gently take her to her bedroom to find new clothes. Then lead her to the bathroom and ask if she would like to change alone or with you there to keep her company. Be firm! Do NOT do it for her.

The key to successful potty training is patience and consistency. No matter how challenging the process may seem, success will come eventually. I urge parents to stay positive and, above all, to maintain a sense of humor. After all, it is highly unlikely that your little darling will be starting college in diapers! Relax and enjoy your child!  
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Meet Our Expert
Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jane Nelsen is a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author or co-author of 18 books, including Positive Discipline, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, and 12 other books in the Positive Discipline Series, among others. She earned her Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco, but her formal training has been secondary to her hands-on training as the mother of seven and grandmother of 20. She now shares this wealth of knowledge and experience as a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader throughout the country.

Dr. Nelsen has also appeared on numerous radio and TV shows, including Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Twin Cities Live and is frequently quoted in parenting magazines.
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