Helping Children to Learn to Use the Potty or Toilet


Frequently, supporting our children to learn to use the potty or toilet can be really difficult and frustrating for parents. The widely-used term 'Potty Training' implies that our children need to be trained in using a potty or the toilet, and there is a lot of cultural conditioning about when children "should" be using the toilet and how to motivate them with rewards and coercion, or punishment when they make "mistakes". Aware Parenting has a different perspective, and views this as a process that we can support our children to move through at their own time, following their cues and supporting them with play, laughter and loving listening to feelings if they are finding the process hard. We do not use punishments or rewards or bribes and instead we trust our children to find their way with our loving support. Many Aware Parents choose to practice Elimination Communication from birth, however this article is about supporting children to use the potty or toilet using Aware Parenting principles. 

As always with Aware Parenting, we parents are encouraged to be getting listening and support ourselves, so that we can have a space to release our stress and frustrations about parenting, where we can bring some curiosity to our painful parts that are touched by our children's behaviour. We need spaces where we can explore our thoughts, beliefs or what we are telling ourselves about what is happening in our families, and tease out what parts are for us to unpack, what parts are cultural conditioning or the voices of our parents or teachers that we don't want to be using any more. We need the opportunity to receive and practice compassion, so that we have more spaciousness to offer our children and so we learn to speak this language of compassion to ourselves and to our children. And, if we are finding ourselves comparing our children to others' or to each other and becoming frustrated or annoyed about their toileting, getting listening and support is crucial to help us to quiet the judgemental and critical voices and come back to lovingly supporting our children.

Often with potty learning, we are looking for signs that might suggest to us that our children are ready to start using a potty or toilets. These signs include have a dry nappy or not peeing for a few hours at a time, seeing them having increased awareness of when they are peeing or pooing, when they start talking more about it and showing some interest in using the toilet. Often parents are tempted to push or rush this process because it's so liberating for everyone in the family to say goodbye to nappies, but, again, we are invited to trust our children and tune into where they are at and how ready they seem to be, to take our guide from them. 

Often families have struggles about this process and sometimes there is resistance from our children, or we see our children regressing about using the toilet or potty and wanting to go back to nappies again.  There are many possible reasons for this, and Aware Parenting encourages us to explore underneath their behaviour to work out why, so that we can support our children to get back on track.

If you are using authoritarian discipline, with punishments or rewards, then our children's needs for autonomy and choice are not being met and they may react against that by exerting control over something like toileting. Children will also not be experiencing the necessary sense of safety that is required to be able to release stress and trauma if they are in families where they are being punished, which can often result in challenges with learning to use the potty. This authoritarian approach to discipline often disconnects children from their bodily sensations and their intrinsic motivation, because instead they are motivated by fear of punishment,  by what they are going to get out of it (the reward) or to avoid the punishment (fear). So it is always helpful to stop using punishments/rewards and instead, look for underlying unmet needs and accumulated feelings. Even subtle punishments or mild rewards such as  "good job" can undermine a child's connection to their intrinsic motivation. 

Often there is resistance or regression in toileting in response to accumulated trauma. This might be a big experience that is stressful to our children or it can be lots of accumulated mini traumas. Trauma is anything that the child perceives to be threatening or scary and all children will experience trauma. From the moment of conception, our babies are always getting feedback from the mother's nervous system, and when we are experiencing stress or trauma during pregnancy (which most of us do) then our babies will be impacted by that. The process of birth is also often traumatic and stressful, as are the inevitable difficult moments throughout their development, as well as intergenerational and cultural trauma that all children are impacted by. 

The good news is we have powerful healing mechanisms of crying, raging, laughter all with loving support, all of which support our children to release the stress from their bodies. But, if the big or accumulated mini-trauma is not released in these ways, it gets stored in their bodies and comes out in the form of trauma responses. Typical behaviours which indicate trauma responses are the behaviours that we find most difficult in our children -  resistance, lack of cooperation, inflexibility and aggression, and holding in poo and wee or resistance and regression around the potty/toilet can all be signs of unreleased stress and trauma. If they have big challenging experiences, such as the birth of new sibling, divorce or illness, they can also resist potty learning or regress. It could also be that our children develop fear around toileting from experiences whilst on the toilet. 

Whenever our children's behaviour is challenging, Aware Parenting invites us to go back to the list of 3 - what they are thinking, what their unmet needs are and to ask ourselves could this be due to accumulated, unexpressed feelings. We are also encouraged to tune in to our children and to observe their behaviour after we have attended to this list of 3 things so we can decipher what is going to support them best. Each child is a unique being with their own unique needs, understandings and feelings, so this is always a nuanced process. 

  1. Their thoughts and understanding:  Giving our children information about toileting is really helpful. Reading books about the toilet, showing them how it works, allowing them to see us using the toilet all help to reassure our children and to understand the process. If it's possible to allow them to have time when they are not wearing a nappy, they can start to tune into their bodies when they notice themselves peeing. But understanding and being aware of their bodily sensations and functions is often not enough on its own and sometimes we need to remind ourselves that, if they are being resistant or regressing after receiving lots of information about it, it's not that they are being deliberately difficult or annoying, it's because there is something else going on which needs our support. 
  2. Their needs:  Children have lots of needs and at the time that most children start potty learning, many have particularly high needs for autonomy over their bodies, independence, trust with their timing, free from any pressure. So we need to ask ourselves, are we coercing or pushing it too soon? Can we give them mastery and control of their bodily functions, the opportunity to recognise their bodily signals? Can we give them additional opportunities to experience choice, autonomy and agency? Are they needing increased connection and safety due to some recent challenging experiences? Finding ways to meet these needs will encourage them to be more cooperative, less resistant to the toilet, and less likely to regress in toileting. 
  3. Their feelings:   Aware Parenting recognises the immense power for our children of releasing and healing feelings and emotions. They cannot process emotions through talking at this age and instead they use the natural mechanisms of crying, raging, tantrums with our loving support,  and through play.  Attachment play that helps with toilet learning can include play to increase their sense of emotional safety so they release feelings, such as increasing special time. It also includes specific play to support the powerful healing of stress and distress through play, such as symbolic play with props related to toilets e.g. toy dolls/teddies and a toy potty, brown playdough, or doll-size nappies. So parents can provide these toys and then stay with the child, observing what they do, following their lead and be involved but not leading the play. Bringing laughter is especially therapeutic if you think there may be some fear underneath their struggles. So trying to elicit laughter through Nonsense Play is really helpful e.g. through pretending to be frightened of the toilet, pretending to wee and poo around the house or getting a doll to do that - whatever brings laughter to your child is immensely powerfully healing. Regression play is also helpful if child suddenly starts resisting toilet, e.g. pretending they are your baby, rocking and cuddling them like a baby, pretending to put nappies on them, done with love and fun. 
  4. Loving limits - if we suspect feelings are there, offering loving limits and listening to all the big feelings in response, will support release of the stressful feelings so kids are then free to use toilet. Loving limits is a term coined by Marion Rose, and it is where we say "No" to what our children are doing or asking for, and "Yes" to welcome all the big feelings to come out. These loving limits can be offered in relation to the toilet, or more generally at other times when we notice big feelings from our children's behaviour. The key is that they feel safe with us and know that we are there to lovingly listen whilst they cry and rage. We do not force or power-over our children, but we remind them of what we are willing for or not willing for and then listen to their response.

Aware Parenting also recognises the "broken cookie" phenomenon, when children use little pretexts in order to release accumulated stress from their bodies. So, again, if we notice some resistance or suspect some accumulated feelings in our children, we may notice them having big reactions to our invitations to use the potty or toilet. In these situations, we can reassure ourselves that they are using it as a broken cookie moment, where they are getting to release and heal lots of upset that they have been carrying around, in response to something seemingly "small", much of which has nothing to do with the potty or toilet. 

Trust is a vital part of Aware Parenting - both trusting ourselves and our children. Learning to trust sounds easy but it is often super hard as most of us weren't trusted as children and we often therefore learned not to trust ourselves. Many Aware Parents really want our children to trust themselves and their timing, including timing around toilet. Reminding ourselves that our children deeply desire to be competent and to learn new skills - their true nature is to be cooperative and willing to learn. 

Geting listening for ourselves when we feel frustrated and annoyed by it all is so important and really supports the process of learning to trust our children and their timing too. But this process can feel so hard and we are tired without the support we need often feels overwhelming. If you would like support to navigate this, or any other aspect of parenting, I am here to help. 

To learn more about Aware Parenting, I highly recommend Aletha Solter's 6 books.

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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