Potty Training a Strong-Willed Child


Learn what your approach to potty training should be when you have a strong-willed child.

How do you potty train a Strong-Willed Child?  That question could get about a thousand different answers from seasoned parents and child development experts, but I can tell you from personal experience that you might discover it will sometimes seem like nothing works.

It’s one of the biggest milestones in childhood, and most parents expect to get their toddler out of diapers and onto the big toilet somewhere between 18 months and two years of age.  I know I did.  But I didn't know that many children aren’t interested in the process until after age 3, and my twin boys didn't seem to be in a hurry at all.

I had plans for them—preschool, swimming lessons, and other exciting things that just wouldn’t work if they were still in diapers.  I wanted to get this show on the road!  My strong will kicked into gear, but I ran full speed into two small but determined strong-willed obstacles who insisted on deciding for themselves when they were ready.

I must have tried a hundred ideas as I listened to very diverse suggestions from well-meaning parents who had already weathered this phase (and more than a few of those parents boasted that they had succeeded with their child at a much earlier age than my boys were).  But after trying everything from Cheerios floating in the toilet as targets to bribing them with anything they wanted at Toys-R-Us, I was facing daily frustration and defeat.

I finally took the boys to our pediatrician to make sure there was nothing physically wrong with them.  After an examination, the doctor smiled at me as she said, “There’s nothing wrong with either boy—they’re perfectly normal.  I think maybe this whole process is a little too important to you.”  What?  Of course it’s important!  She nodded, but reminded me of something I should have already known.  “This is one area your child can control—and you can’t force a child to be potty trained.  Try to relax and back off a little.  They won’t go to college in diapers, you know.  Enjoy them while they’re experiencing childhood.”

I thought about that and decided I really was a little too anxious to simply get this whole stage over with.  Maybe I should just smile at them more, and figure out some way I could share control with them without letting them think they were the ones in charge.

My mom provided daycare for me at the time, and she came up with a great idea.  Both boys were wearing a pull-up style of diapers, so we told the boys that from now on we were going to teach them how to change their own pants when they needed to.  We patiently demonstrated how to dispose of the pull-up and where to find the new one, and we did this every time a change was necessary.  Our voices stayed calm and cheerful, and at first the boys looked a little confused about what was happening.  When a boy would ask how soon until Daddy got home (figuring he might be a softer touch), he usually found out it would be several hours, so he eventually gave in and changed his own pants.  It took less than two weeks for both boys to be in big-boy pants.

This is just one of those hundreds of good suggestions for how to potty train your child, but I can tell you there are at least three very basic tips that will almost always work with a Strong-Willed Child:

  1. Recognize you can’t force your child to be potty trained.  Back off—smile more; threaten and bribe less.
  2. Look for ways to share control of the situation.  Try to figure out how can you let your child help steer this process.   (Try asking more questions, e.g., “Are you ready to change your pants?”  “Would you like to feel dry instead of wet?”)
  3. Keep your voice calm, firm and respectful.

Remember—this too will pass, and college comes sooner than you think!  (My boys will graduate from college this spring.)

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