Updated: Jul 22
Inside: Why is your child refusing to sit on the potty to pee? It may be more than toddler behavior.
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Now we can joke about it, but there was a hard season back when my daughter was 3-years-old where we would suddenly — without warning — find ourselves in a scenario that looked like this..
No, MAMA helps me with the car seat.
(When look, Dad was right there to help her.)
No, PAPA helps me with the car seat.
(When I was standing right there, and guess who wasn’t available?)
You know the PBS show Peg & Cat? (it’s one of our favorites)...well, we would playfully call this repeated conundrum our own recurring episode of The Car Seat Problem.
Again, super funny to reminisce about, but back then, it was not so fun..
to be standing outside our car, trying to get somewhere relatively on time,
with a wriggly toddler inside wailing that she would ONLY let one parent buckle her car seat
(and her choice would ALWAYS be the unavailable parent.)
Toddlers seem to have their own magic button that they’ll press announcing to all they WILL NOT do something the way we are trying to do it.
And of course, as parents we’re simply presenting a reasonable, logical method of doing something. The grownup who's available to buckle your car seat should be the one to buckle your car seat.
Makes perfect sense, I know.
Remember, a toddler’s brain doesn’t work that way. They’re developmentally programmed to be saying NO...
And hey, would you please SIT on the potty to pee?
Here’s the thing about the child refusing to sit on the potty. It could be some variation of The Car Seat Problem. True, toddlers are toddlers and love to say no.
But it could also be MANY other things causing a child to refuse to sit. Here’s what you want to know..
When your child refuses to sit on the potty, the natural first thought is...your child is stubborn. Your child is difficult. You want to throw in the towel with potty training.
Or you're thinking that you're doing something wrong and failing at this potty training thing.
(You're not. But I hear you.)
Perhaps one misconception with potty training consultants is that we all had it down the first time we were potty training as parents. Potty training? Easy peezy lemon squeezie.
Nope. That was not my experience.
I have a child who did not want to sit on the potty at first. Who did not follow my prompts to go pee when it was clear that an accident was moments away. I know the pull-your-hair-out feeling that goes with resistance from your toddler that can pop up at any time but almost always pops up at the exact wrong time.
It can feel maddening when your child won't sit on the potty.
It's natural to react to your child's resistance. It's takes a lot of focus to dig deep and to *NOT* react when your child is refusing to go near the potty and you know your kiddo needs to pee.
The problem is all that resistance can turn into a negative loop.
Your child says no.
You try to force a pee in the potty.
The resistance gets worse.
So here's how to think about your child refusing to sit on the potty in a completely new way..
In most cases, when we see this issue come up in potty training, it's actually not because the child is being defiant, non-compliant, or simply showing his difficult stripes as a terrible two-year-old or sassy 3-year-old.
That's the truth.
(Even if you do indeed have a child who runs on the stubborn end of the spectrum.)
Most of the time, the child who refuses to sit on the potty is NOT doing so because of toddler behavior.
That's in part why we steer away from rewards in Oh Crap Potty Training. Because rewards handle potty training as a purely behavior, you-do-this-for-that motivation. If your child is refusing to sit on the potty, it often has nothing to do with behavior or pulling your parent chain.
It often is not about the child being non-compliant.
Many times, the child is resisting sitting on the potty because the child feels overwhelmed.
There's too much prompting, hovering, and a feeling of pressure in the house.
Fear can present itself in many ways...
fear of that sensation of releasing the pee
fear of the new feeling of releasing poop in a potty (versus pooping in the snug diaper that your child has been using his or her whole life)
or maybe your child got scared from a public restroom toilet with its loud automatic flushers. (I once had a case where the child got scared to use the potty from a bad experience in the dentist's chair.)
Just to name a few possible causes. Each child reacts to being diaper-free a little differently.
And then there's over-prompting.
Most of us sometimes over-prompt in potty training — and don't even realize you're over-prompting.
The words just keep coming out of your mouth.
It's similar to the morning scramble for everyone to get out the door on time. If you pause and listen to yourself, you may hear that you're saying (aka nagging) your child to hurry up almost every other sentence.
Let's go. Hurry up. You need to get your shoes on. Come on, we need to go. You need to get your backpack...
It happens to the best of us. Getting toddlers to do something can feel like herding sheep.
But for some children, the frequency of the reminders to go pee in the potty, that frustrated tone in your voice..
Toddlers can read when you're putting energy on something for them to do it just right.
It overwhelms them. And they don't have the language to convey that feeling.
Related: What is the right tone of voice to use in potty training? How often should you prompt? And what are solutions when your child refuses to sit on the potty? I cover all of those questions in my e-course Potty Training Solutions.
When toddlers feel overwhelmed, they often react with showing resistance. When the potty training process starts to feel too much. When they feel the pressure to get it right.
There are solutions for escalating resistance to sit on the potty.
But there's not a simple trick for dealing with toddler resistance.
This is a potty training issue where the Pinterest-posts of sticker charts fail most parents.
Rewards work for behavior. Rewards don't work for anxiety about the potty.
Even a shiny unicorn sticker isn't the magic when the child is feeling overwhelmed.
What's most important for you to do right now?
Realize that your child is trying to do the right thing.
Potty training is a big milestone in a child's life. It's a big new skill to learn.
Now's the time to empathize with your child. Rather than treat it as behavior and react with consequences. Does behavior ever get in the way? Sure it does. Behavior does show up sometimes in potty training.
But it's not typically the cause of this early-on resistance to sitting on the potty.
Take a step back and think about how you can support your child through the potty training process. And remember that you're dealing with a child who is
refusing your prompt to go pee
refusing your help
refusing to sit on the potty
Remember not to take it personally. Do you feel that fight-or-flight feeling on the back of your neck coming up when your child resists going potty?
Remember your child is not resisting you.
You want to tap into your calm headspace so you don't react in the same way as you would with straight-up toddler behavior. Instead, step back to see what's at the root of this toddler resistance.
Related: Looking for help on how to talk to your toddler? Why some words and situations bring on power battles? How to find more calm at home? I found this book to be one of the best parenting books for support. A few key takeaways really shifted the dynamic between me and my kids.. so they feel heard.
How about expectations? How long does toddler resistance to the potty tend to last?
If your child is outright refusing to sit on the potty, it likely won't turn around in a day.
(Neither will the loud requests for you to come help with a carseat buckle.)
But the first step is to change the way you're thinking about your child refusing to sit on the potty. You can always reach out for support, especially if you feel like you're stuck in frustration land with potty training. Jamie Glowacki, the author of Oh Crap Potty Training, also has a Pooping Solutions course that talks through all the solutions on the poop side, including the child who refuses to sit and poop.
When in doubt. Say less. Listen and observe more.
Illustrations: Citrus and Mint Designs