Updated: Oct 31, 2019
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.)
2. When your child's in a loop of aggressive behavior..
Take a step back to consider what the behavior is communicating. Jamie shares a couple podcast episodes on toddler behavior, how time outs suck, and how toddlers really aren't being *bad* but rather, their behavior is communicating something.
Sometimes in potty training it can be that your child is communicating they are DONE..
done with being cooped at home
done with you hovering around to get a catch in the potty (you shouldn't be hovering)
done with being the kid who's having accidents
done with the whole process
So if you're seeing some intense emotion bubbling up from your child, especially when it's out of the norm for your toddler, you want to pay attention.
What is the behavior communicating?
Because all behavior is communicating something.
The solution there could be getting outside. In my e-course Potty Training Solutions I talk through all the solutions for when you've started potty training, you're not seeing potty wins, your child won't sit on the potty, and you've been stuck inside far too long.
The solution could be changing the pressure vibe in the house (and getting outside, getting those little arms climbing a playground structure so they're not using that energy to throw things at home).
The solution could be working through a poop issue if your child is clearly holding back on poop, and that's affecting her behavior, her whole disposition. Jamie has a Pooping Solutions course that shares how to handle a poop issue.
The solution could be as simple as your child needs more sleep (that could be affected by potty training, molars, routine changes.)
Sometimes the solution is taking a potty breather.
Worth noting: Some toddlers have a reaction to the fast transition, from being in diapers to being out of diapers...one day in, one day out. It can be too fast of a transition for some toddlers. If you feel like that's your child, then we have a slow method of Oh Crap Potty Training that works way better for some kiddos, and I can talk you through that in a potty training consultation.
Sometimes you see some tough aggressive behavior, because the child isn't feeling mad, but rather embarrassed or frustrated. A toddler may express their embarassment about pooping in their pants at preschool with more aggressive behavior rather than the reaction of shame we'd expect from an adult.
Displaying shame as a toddler often will look different than how we express it as grownups.
Some toddlers will act out with tough behavior, depending on their age, development and personality.
Some children will withdraw, maybe run and hide from you seeing the accident.
Some children will seem visibly frustrated.
Others may seem not to notice (especially if you've been seeing many accidents on the regular)
What else to consider with tough behavior around potty training: the root issue could be related to a physical problem...like anxiety to poop.
If a child is struggling to poop, holding back on poop, that can bring up all kinds of big feelings. Including the uncomfortable feeling of that pressure to poop building up (when the child hasn't made it safe in their head to poop in the potty.)
Related: If you're seeing that connection between pooping and tough behavior, be sure that doesn't continue to escalate. You can get support on how to help a child poop in the potty in Jamie's Pooping Solutions course. Or I'd be happy to work with you one-on-one in a potty consultations.
Remember, anxiety means that it's physical.
That's why saying all the words, bribing your child with underwear or candy...that's why those solutions don't work if your child is feeling a physical panic around peeing or pooping in the potty. Because it's not behavior. It's anxiety.
3. When your child is having a tough time..
Don't try to fix the problem.
Help your child feel heard.
When I read through the parenting book How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, one of the big takeaways for me, that has proven to be an effective tool for years as a parent, is to refrain from telling your child to feel another way.
We all own our feelings. Toddlers, too.
So let's stop telling them to calm down, am I right?
Instead of telling your toddler to feel another emotion, let's first make sure our toddlers can name what they're actually feeling.
And then you can work through that feeling of frustration, worry, fear.
So think about is your toddler feeling...
None of these above feelings are positive, but they're all different emotions.
Help your toddler pinpoint what they're feeling. The best way I've found to do that is to use a trick they use in Montessori school.
Say what you observe in your child.
That helps your child to feel more seen and heard.
I can see you've having a tough time. You look sad.
(Which sometimes will lead to your kiddo correcting you and saying, no they're not sad, they're actually mad.)
Saying what you observe in your child also steps you back from coming in and trying to *fix* whatever they're feeling. You're simply helping to name the feeling. That exercise alone can help diffuse some situations, and then you can help your child move on once you've listened to where you child is right now.
Keep in mind: If you're going to say, I can see you're having a tough time, it needs to be done with sincerity. Don't say it with a hint of sarcasm. And if you and your child have been caught in a negative loop for a long time, then you're going to want to bridge a connection first. If you feel like your child won't listen to you when you try to have a small chat, or bats you away, then I would start by listening to Jamie's podcast on Connection and They Just Won't Listen to start to repair that connection.
Now that you've named the behavior with big feelings, how do you help your toddler through all these big feelings?
With anything with toddlers, it's practice and repetition for the win.
Think about how an adult gets better at public speaking. It's going to get easier to do the more you do it, am I right? Same thing goes with emotional fluency, with having conversations where you connect with your child.
The more it becomes a part of life, the more natural it becomes.
Here are some simple solutions and books that have helped us as a family. I'm by nature a visual person so I like to have some visuals to help me as a mom, as emotions and feelings are such an abstract idea for our kids, especially at the toddler age.
1. Animal Chat:
And I've found it's a helpful tool for days with a cluster of sibling squabbling moments.
Doing one of the suggested game exercises, my kids will share what was hard/annoying/frustrating in the day with each other, and the game acts as the mediator (versus mom, super helpful!).
I've also used the cards to share, without words, what I thought my kiddo was feeling in a tough moment. It's like a bridge to communication. And it's super cute, the illustrations are fun for kids.
2. The Best Chidren's Picture Books About Feelings
I love cozying up with my kids and a good book (in another quiet spot of the day). With the right book, it's easier to chat about the emotions we saw come up earlier in the day. These are books I've found helpful.
Children's picture books that talk through feelings:
1. What Are Feelings: Such a thoughtful lift-the-flap book for toddlers on up. The design makes it interactive which is what you want with trying to talk to toddlers about hard stuff.
2. All About Feelings: This is a perfect book for preschoolers with pictures and scenarios about how these emotions feel (and when you may be feeling them).
3. Everyone: Following a tough day with some big tears, this is our go-to bedtime read.
4. What If Feelings?: This board book talks through worries with younger toddlers in a cute format with worrying monsters.
5. Little Miss Giggles and Mr. Worry: We're big fans of the Little Miss and Little Mister books in our house. These picks talk through worry in a playful way. Even Little Miss Giggles lost her giggle one day!
6. Angry Cookie: Such a great message for toddlers about being an angry cookie, and feeling like you're going to explode.
7. Grumpy Monkey: All the animals try to make Grumpy Monkey feel less grumpy, but in reality, all he wants is to feel heard and sit with his grumps for a bit. (And then poof, they go away.) A great reminder for us parents who try to push away the grumps in an instant when our toddlers aren't their cheerful selves.
3. Emotion Wheel
An emotion wheel is such a simple, but helpful tool. As we all spin around with emotions each day. And this idea is something that's even been helpful for my school-age kids, with their big transitions back to school. Rather than ask, how was your day? I can ask my kids to show me how their day went, how they're feeling.
Because how was your day tends to get a nothing response...good.
But ask your child to show you how they're feeling and your child makes a choice. Maybe they're feeling excited. Maybe they're chill. Maybe they're feeling blah (pretty much how I feel after a long day!).
It's a simple idea but giving your child a tangible way to point to what they're feeling can be a powerful tool. I'm in love with this wooden emotion wheel, by Mirus Toys and the shop also makes a perpetual calendar that includes an emotion wheel. (How cool!)
4. A tangible object to help with transitions
Jamie talks about the support of a talisman, a special object filled up with your mama love or daddy love in her podcast on Transitions Big and Small. And I've found the concept to be SO effective over the years, since when my kids were young toddlers.
The idea is helpful no matter what's triggering resistance. Keep in mind, potty training is a big transition for your child.
It's a different literal feeling to pee and poop outside the diaper.
It changes up the routine of the day in many ways.
It shifts your expectations of your child...you go from changing your child's diaper multiple times a day to expecting your toddler to connect with the feeling to go pee and poop, push pants down, and use a potty.
Yes, I'm sure your child is capable of using the potty. But don't overlook what a big emotional transition this is for a child. So is starting back at daycare or preschool diaper-free, for the first time. That's a big transition! That will look different than being there in a pullup or diaper.
Helping your child through these transitions starts with you.
Having small chats on big feelings.
And just like with a game of ping-pong, you may not always serve the right words that your toddler needs to hear.
But you're likely to notice a shift in your toddler when you step back and observe where these big feelings are coming from.
And that can be a gamechanger, for sure.