Inside: How to help your potty training toddler with the big feelings that can come up in the potty training process...and in regular life with toddlers. This content contains affliate links.
I remember the mental checklist I'd go through when my oldest was just a newborn: does she need milk? Diaper change? Would bouncing help? Snuggle her into a wrap on me?
An infant ping-pongs in one direction when they're feeling any range of emotion — whether it's happy, tired, hungry, stressed — the baby wants you. When you put aside the sleepless nights, that's one reason why that stage of life can feel easier than the toddler age. Your baby always wants you to soothe whatever they're feeling.
The toddler age kicks off a development stage where even bigger feelings come to the surface, and your child can ping-pong in many directions.
Rather than reaching out for mama, a toddler may act out with a full-range of emotions, some of which may include pulling away from you.
When in reality, they're having a tough time and likely need extra support.
You could see your toddler react by withdrawing, hitting, screaming, or crying when they feel embarrassed, frustrated, scared, or short on your attention.
So what can you do to understand and support your toddler who is suddenly feeling all these big emotions in a big way? They don't call them meltdowns for nothing!
As a potty training consultant, I definitely hear from parents seeing some big emotions come up, which can happen when the child is diaper-free for the first time. Why does this happen?
First thing to remember: Those sensations, peeing and pooping outside a snug diaper (the feeling they've known their whole life), can trigger some big emotions for toddlers. The potty training tips I've shared on this blog can be part of the solution: how to handle the child who won't sit on the potty, how to help your child poop, how to take the power battles out of potty training.
But there's another important tool you need in supporting toddlers through this wild ride of potty training, heading off to preschool, and all the milestones and changes that come at this age.
You want to help your toddler understand these big feelings.
That's when they feel less scared.
That's when you and your child will feel more connected.
So we want to name these big feelings with our kids.
That's the first step to sorting through the big reactions you're seeing from your toddler in all parts of life...including potty training.
Let's dive in with positive tips to get you started:
If you're here, my hunch is you already are a conscious parent! A parent who's mindful about your language. You want to support your toddler through the ups-and-downs of this stage without suddenly combusting under frustration, yelling at your kiddo (with your child then shrinking away with a scared look in the eye.)
I'm right there with you.
And like you, I mess it up sometimes, too.
As you go along as a parent, you quickly learn there's not an age where parenting becomes *easier*. There's also not an age where kids will naturally know how to express their feelings. The best thing we can do as parents is model what we want our children to do, and practice, practice, practice!
It only becomes more important when kids are school-age and dealing with many more relationships and feelings in their life. So start talking about feelings now with your toddler, and you're better set up for when the situations become trickier.
So your child feels more comfortable sharing what they're feeling.
So they feel heard.
Down the line, when your school-age kid has a bad day because a friend didn't want to play with them or they got laughed at on the kickball field, your kiddo will be better able to express what they're feeling — when they understand what these words mean.
Let's get real: This is a big topic that could clearly be a book! And if you're looking to dive in more on toddlers and feelings, I would recommend Oh Crap I Have a Toddler, How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, and The Montessori Toddler as guides for understanding this idea on a deeper level. I'm also not a medical practitioner, a child psychologist, or a teacher. So this framework comes from what I've seen work as a conscious-minded mama to two kiddos, and what I've noticed pattern-wise as a potty training consultant, working with so many families who are dealing with some very big feelings that can come up in the potty training process.
Okay so here's what to do and what not do...
1. When your child is feeling anxious..
First thing to do is pause. Because you don't want to throw the kitchen sink at your toddler when they're already feeling anxious or scared about something.
Without thinking, we as parents often go to that knee-jerk response to try and fix it..with all the words, with all the tricks, with trying to calm the child down immediately when we see our kiddos have a strong reaction. And that reaction may be to the potty. To pooping. To peeing. Or to something new.
I hear that all the time as a potty training consultant. The child may start to spin out with some wild emotions when the diapers come off and the potty comes into the picture. And the parents try to say EVERYTHING to calm the child down (often all at once).
You're going to be okay. Let's go sit on the potty (said in a high voice). Come on, let's go sit. You need to let your pee out. Come on and be a big kid. You need to go on the potty.
And then all the tricks come out...
I'll give you this surprise if you sit on the potty.
You can play with your trains if you poop in the potty.
We'll go outside and play if you try to sit on the potty.
You can get these big girl undies if you go potty.
And guess what all this sounds like to the child?
It sounds like fear.
It sounds like mom's scared, rattled, or freaking out. It's not comforting to have someone scrambling around you with that energy when you're already feeling anxious.
It sounds like you're trying to coax her into calming down.
But you can't beg, bribe, or coax your child into feeling calm when they're feeling anxious.
That spinning out of big emotions you see? That's fight or flight.
Think about when you've felt anxious. Does someone saying...
Do this.. Come on try this.. You just need to do this..
Would that help? Nope.
When you're feeling anxious,you want to feel heard.
We see the quote circulate around Instagram and it's true for us and it's true for our toddlers...
It's okay to not be okay.
And hey, sometimes a tough moment will come up simply because your child is having an off day (maybe brought on by bad sleep, too much time cooped up indoors, a change in routine, etc.) But sometimes the big feelings are clearly related to something specific.
Like going to the potty.
Next time, try backing off the impulse to try to make it better right away. To try and flip your child to calm down. Once your child spins out into a meltdown, you won't be able to reason her into being okay with the potty.
So let your toddler know you're there, supporting her.
Bring a calm and steady voice.
When you're ready to sit, I'm right here.
And then BEFORE your toddler spins out again in feeling scared or anxious, you want to have some small chats around these big feelings. (Skip to the end of this post to see the solutions we like to use.)