Interview with A Potty Training Expert

Filed under: Potty Training, Expert Advice: Babies, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Dr. Pete Stavinoha wrote the book on potty training -- literally. A pediatric psychologist in Dallas, Dr. Stavinoha is the co-author of Stress Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child. The book, written in partnership with journalist and mom Sara Au, advises parents on choosing the right potty training method based on their child's particular personality type.

Since not all of us are lucky enough to have access to an expert like Dr. Stavinoha as we begin the process of potty training, ParentDish has brought the expert to you. Here, the good doctor thoughtfully answers the most common questions parents have about making that transition from diapers to potty.

How can parents determine when their child is ready to use the toilet?
There are three types of readiness that parents can look for. First, a child has to be "physically" ready - the toddler needs to be able to get clothes up and down to get access to the "plumbing", have the ability to get on a potty or potty chair, etc. Second, a child has to be "cognitively" ready - they have to know what to do. This means having a basic understanding of the process of using the potty and even having a vocabulary that the child uses and understands (in order to communicate about potty use with a parent or caregiver). Third, a child needs to have some interest (motivation) regarding potty use. Some children express this spontaneously ("I want to wear big girl underpants!"), while other children may seem indifferent. In children who seem uninterested, it is important for parents to strategically facilitate interest in potty training. Without interest/motivation, the process will be difficult for all involved.

What is the most commonly used and most successful method of potty training?
I don't know that there really is a most common or successful method. I think parents take a lot of advice and try to do the best they can. Sometimes the advice is good, and other times certain ideas that parents are given can be counterproductive and make the process take longer than it needs to. We advocate first understanding your child - our approach uses a child's temperament as a way to understand how the child tends to operate. The 5 types we identify are: Goal Directed, Impulsive, Internalizer, Sensory Oriented, and Strong Willed. Then, we suggest strategies that are likely to be more effective for a particular temperament. The whole idea is to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to potty training. But parents know a lot about their child, and by taking cues from their child (in our case, understanding temperament), parents can use strategies that are more likely to stimulate interest and success with their child, while at the same time avoiding strategies that might be counterproductive with a particular child.
What is the most common mistake parents make when potty training?
Expecting success too early is a big one - it goes hand-in-hand with parents feeling like they "control" the process of potty training. Somehow many parents have the sense that earlier potty training is the mark of a successful parent! The problem with expecting potty training success too early is that we kick things into high gear before the child is ready, and then we and our child are frustrated and stressed when things don't go as parents planned or expected. Stress and frustration will almost certainly prolong the process. Another aspect of this mistake is that we think that we are in control of the process - that there must be some "system" or specific magical strategy that WILL result in successful potty training for our child. We can do lots to stimulate interest and facilitate the process, but we don't control it. The sooner we learn this as parents, the quicker we will adopt this effective parenting mindset.

What should a parent do when potty training becomes a battle for control?
When a child actively resists after having achieved some success, it is important to step back from the process and think about factors that possibly led to the resistance. For example, sometimes a change or stressor (a new sibling, new house, starting daycare or preschool, etc.) can result in such a setback. More than anything, step back and don't push. Often we react to resistance by pushing harder, but that can be disastrous when a child decides to dig in his heels. Keep up strategies that help facilitate interest and make sure that every little attempt is rewarded with praise given to your child in a meaningful and sincere manner. Temporary setbacks can be a part of the learning process for a child, and temporary setbacks are not unusual in potty training.

Can a parent's potty training mistakes really cause long-term psychological damage to a child?
This is a great question and not one that should be answered lightly. If parents use punishment or shame as a primary strategy for potty training and/or have a punitive approach to handling accidents, then the stage is potentially set for psychological trauma to the child that could be long lasting. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more child abuse occurs during potty training than any other developmental step. April has been declared National Child Abuse Prevention month, so it is timely to consider the relationship between potty training and abuse that could lead to longer term psychological trauma.

Is it true that boys are harder to potty train than girls?
According to a recent study summarized in our book, boys tend to achieve potty independence a little later than girls. However, for parents looking to potty train their child, this statistic is not meaningful. Some boys are independent by 2 years, while some girls are not independent until close to 4 years (and vice versa). Similarly, some boys are extremely easy to train, while some girls are stubborn and difficult (and vice versa). So these kind of summary statements are really not helpful to parents. Instead, parents should think about their child, their child's temperament and individual characteristics, the family situation (how busy are parents, how patient are parents, etc,) and determine strategies based on that unique information.

Is bed wetting always a sign of a serious problem? How should parents handle this?
Bed wetting is often not a sign of a serious problem. For some children, it is a fact of life until it spontaneously goes away during later elementary school. I think it is always prudent to talk to your child's physician about bed wetting – sometimes there are effective remedies (while other times there are not), but your child's physician is in the best position to determine whether additional evaluation and intervention for the problem is warranted.

What is the one piece of advice you would like to give parents who are ready to begin potty training their child?
Relax! Potty training is not a race, and there is no evidence that early potty trainers are any more successful or happy as adults compared to those who potty trained a little later. So give yourself permission to take the time to understand your child and understand the best things you can do to facilitate the process. And give your child permission to progress at a pace that is right for her. Educate yourself on strategies that might be helpful, and think about how those fit, or don't fit, within your family and lifestyle. Don't look at potty training as an event – just like learning to read takes a long time and begins with basic skills like learning the alphabet, potty training is also a process of skill acquisition. Learning a new skill takes time, and stress, anxiety, and frustration will only slow the process down.

For more great parenting tips from Dr. Stavinoha and Ms. Au, tune into The Real Parenting Show podcast at Parents Everywhere. Here, they provide straightforward advice and practical tips for real parents raising real kids in the real world.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.