Regression in Potty Training

“My 3 year old has suddenly begun to poo in his underwear after being potty trained for over six months. We can’t figure it out! He tells us after he has gone and sometimes tries to clean it up himself (making for a huge and unsanitary mess). There is no place or time associated with the accidents: sometimes at home, sometimes when we are out and frequently when there is a potty nearby. We’ve asked him why he doesn’t say anything, ask to go to the potty (or just go as he usually does) or to talk about how he feels when he needs to go, but we get very little from him. Please help as it has become almost a daily thing now.”

We reached out to our go-to expert on the matter, Janeen Hayward of swellbeing, to see if she could shed some light on the reasons why this is happening and what the mom can do to help her son get back on track.

1. Stay calm.

He will take his cues from you. If this is an area that causes you to panic, worry, frustrate or anger, it becomes ripe for power struggles. Don’t engage in the power struggle.

2. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to feel powerful and significant.

For example, many three year-olds can help with sweeping, getting ready for bed, putting away dry grocery items. Feeling both powerful and significant in these constructive ways means your child won’t have to use the potty as an area for a power struggle.

3. Be sure to tell him that big worries and small worries alike, you’re always ready to listen.

4. Make sure you have time carved into every day (15 minutes at least) where he has your undivided attention.

Call it special Mommy/(son’s name) time. If it happens at a predictable time, he will be at ease, knowing that he is going to get it every day. That way, if any part of this situation is about the attention that comes from having any accident, it won’t be necessary anymore.

5. Try to neutralize the accident.

Tell him that accidents happen and you are confident that he knows how to poop on the potty and will do so again. This is an area where we as parents often feel stuck and resort to blaming and/or shaming our kids. This only makes them feel worse and they truly may not really know why they’re doing it. Offering encouragement, however, often leads to more healthy behaviors and choices. “Accidents happen. I know you know how to use the potty to poop and I’m confident you’ll do it again soon.”

6. Ask him to tell you when he has had an accident and you’ll help him to clean it up.

Thank him when he does. This should minimize the messes that come from him trying to clean up himself.

Regressions with potty training are normal, and more to the point, they often have meaning. It is important to take stock of other changes in his life or the family (i.e. new baby, new caregiver, starting school, illness, change in parent’s work schedule) to see if there is anything that could explain the regression. Sometimes events such as these can create anxiety and poke at a child’s sense of belonging and/or significance. How we parents respond to these behaviors can be the difference between them continuing or not.

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