My Child Refuses to Potty Train: What Can I Do?

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


Parents of toddlers are constantly surrounded by other parents whose kids are the same age. Whatever your activity of choice -- a play group, an art/music class, a visit to the playground or a Gymboree class -- it's relatively standard for parents to gather and share war stories, advice and tips on their parenting experiences. When these conversations pop up, it's also somewhat inevitable for parents to create comparisons between their little one and other kids of a similar age. Is my child is on track developmentally? Is he or she keeping up with their peers?

Potty training is one of those milestones that parents use as a measuring stick for their child's progress. Experts say that two years old is the average age for children to develop an interest in potty training. So what do you do when your child is 3½ and still resistant to learning? From a practical standpoint, every parent knows that children develop at different rates. But from an emotional standpoint, it's hard not to be concerned when YOUR child is the one lagging behind.

ParentDish recently heard from a frustrated mom looking for reasons why her 3½-year-old son was so resistant to using the potty and what she could do at this point to speed up the process. We asked Dr. Mark Wolraich, Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Child Study Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, OK, for his expert opinion, in the hopes that the answer would not only help this frazzled mom, but other parents facing the same frustration.

We have a very strong-willed son who is 3 ½. We've been potty training for the last 9 months. Our initial strategy was to put him in underwear (except for nighttime) and gave him rewards and praise when he went on the potty. He has been pretty good pooping on the potty, but peeing on the potty has been a real struggle. He was motivated and fairly successful at first, but the novelty wore off fast. Since then we have tried most everything -- different types of rewards, cumulative rewards, sticker charts, praise, taking stuff away, timed bathroom breaks, etc. He almost always puts up a fight and almost always is wet even before we get him on the potty. In retrospect, we know that we started too early and that the rewards didn't work for him...but now we're 9 months in and not sure how to proceed. Lately we have totally backed off – kept him in the underwear, not mentioned the potty at all and had no reaction when there have been accidents or successes, in the hopes that he will feel in control and motivated to try again. So far, it has only resulted in messy accidents. He doesn't seem very bothered to be wet and simply points it out and asks for another pair (as if they are disposable!) We question whether we should put him in a diaper/pull-up during the day, but feel like he'll just start peeing in those and we will be even worse off. We are at our wits end and desperately need help!

--Lisa from Short Hills, NJ


Dr. Mark Wolraich: My response to the parent is: It sounds like your son has figured out that he can get a good deal of attention for not urinating where he should. I think your backing off has been a move in the right direction. I would suggest putting him back in Pull-Ups so that you don't have to deal with messy accidents. He will reach a point where not going in the potty will not get any attention and will be bothersome because other children are not in Pull-Ups (like he is). If there is a preschool program that will not take him without being trained and it is one he would like to go to, you might find him training himself more quickly. The less you push him about toileting and the more he experiences the natural consequences of not urinating where he should, the more likely you are to make progress. Good luck and stick with it.

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