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Potty Training Solutions: Help for a Preschooler Afraid of the Potty

Hi Dr. Heather,

I am in desperate need of help. I have an almost-4-year-old son who is afraid of public restrooms. At 2 1/2 years old, his preschool teacher thought he may have a speech delay so we did early intervention with Easter Seals through the State run program. Turns out he just wasn't ready to talk. (Now we can't keep him quiet.) We had started potty training him and he was doing so well at home. I thought nothing of it until we went out and he screamed and cried and just didn't want to use the public restrooms. He said he was afraid of the noise. He also doesn't like the restrooms with the auto flush feature. We went to the mall almost every afternoon to try to "desensitize" him of his fear. Within a month he was fine. He would go to the restroom at school and in public.

In August of last year, he started at a new school. He was fine the first month and all of a sudden he stopped going to the bathroom at school. He will use the school's restroom if I'm there, but he won't go with his teachers or his classmates. This causes him to have accidents during school...especially at nap time. When I take him to school, we use the restroom. When I pick him up, we use the restroom. But he just won't go with his teachers.

Now he has a fear that the toilet will clog. He cries while sitting on the toilet, asking if it will clog. I know he has anxiety issues but I'm just getting really frustrated and don't know how to handle this situation.

What do I do? I'm afraid that his school will not let him come back next year if this keeps happening and more importantly, I'm afraid he'll be like this as an adult.

Any advice would be appreciated!

Thank you,



Hi Kathy,

Please don't worry about his future as an adult. So many of these fears are passing things in childhood. Of course I cannot guarantee he won't be an anxious adult, but the presence of anxiety in early childhood is extremely common and is almost always normal (and passing). Potty fears are one of the most common, especially with those super-loud (and uncontrollable) automatic flushers. Who ever thought THOSE were a good idea?! Nobody with young children, that's who.

Now, think back: did anything happen at school to upset him? Did the toilet clog one day and overflow? Talk to his teachers; use your parent detective abilities to see if there is any connection to something upsetting that happened. Then you (and his teachers) can try to slowly reacquaint him with the potty, understanding his fears.

I also wonder about his school. What is the teacher/student ratio? Ideally, one teacher would be assigned to assist and support him with potty trials throughout the day, with no pressure. The pressure will only make it worse. These kinds of problems are really not that unusual in preschools. The teachers hopefully can be asked to support him a bit more. Perhaps a brief return to using Pull-Ups might be considered. Ask him if it would help him at school, especially at naptime. He might feel reassured simply to have the option. He shouldn't be shamed because of it; it's just a temporary measure until he feels more confident. Assure him that, soon, he'll feel better about the potty at school but until then, why not use the PullUps so he doesn't have to worry about an accident? Lots of 3 and 4-year-olds use PullUps.

But I also hear that you have an underlying concern about your son's anxiety level, and have had good experience with help in the past. Why not ask his previous therapists if they have any suggestions, including the possibility of an evaluation by a child psychologist, just for you to get some more information and hopefully settle your own anxieties about him? Because your son can sense YOUR anxiety too -- and you don't want him to internalize that you're fearful about him. If you have a concern, promptly get it checked out, so that you can either get him some help (and feel relieved that he should feel better soon), or feel relieved that everything is OK.

Finally, have you checked out my other posts on "Toddler Behaviors and Fears"? There will be several posts that come up -- you can keep clicking "older entries" to see even more.

Good luck and let me know if you need more ideas.


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