I am so excited to have our guest for this week Dr Sarah Bell-Booth who is a Clinical Psychologist based in Auckland, NZ who specialises in the parent mental health. Sarah is a mother to three young children including twins. She is perfectly placed to help give some advice to navigate the emotional roller coaster that is toilet training. Laura
You’ve just survived the mammoth adjustment to parenthood with its challenges of pregnancy, birth, feeding, settling and helping them to stay safe while they learn to crawl and walk.
You breathe a sigh of relief that your kid/s are finally becoming a little less dependent on you for their basic needs.
However, as soon as you reflect and even celebrate your parenting achievements thinking, “phew - no more big obstacles”, you click that they’re ready to tackle the messiest, most potentially publicly-humiliating task that is toilet training.
There’s no avoiding it (well, not long-term anyway)…
Let’s normalise the myriad of emotions you may experience during your toilet training missions… dread, overwhelm, anxiety and perhaps a tonne of frustration.
We must validate these emotions. They are common and understandable given the high sense of responsibility parents feel to teach this essential life skill. You may experience an extra dose of impatience if you’ve come from a background of high success in your career or relative triumph with your previous “easy to train” children.
What can make it doubly hard is the disconnect between your overeager, over-researched textbook plans and your child’s normal developmental stage, motivations and abilities.
Specifically, young children have an underdeveloped frontal cortex, which is the rational reasoning centre of the brain. This explains why they can’t plan and regulate their emotions as effectively as adults – well, sometimes – ha!
Depending on your child’s temperament, they may also have a strong desire for independence with a strong dislike for being controlled by their caregivers.
However, for toilet training to work, there must be parent-child co-operation (for example, when the child needs to reliably communicate their urge to go to the toilet). Enter the intense mind-games of making them think they are boss while stealth-mode guiding them like a puppet. Exhausting.
Toilet training is all about change, learning and mistakes so it’s no surprise that kids can get big emotions of anxiety and frustration also. They thrive on the certainty of seeing their parent or caregiver composed, not flustered. You are both their role model and their stable source of support, like a cheerleader – no pressure – hmm.
So, what should you do if you feel overcome with excessive emotions during toilet training? Firstly, it helps to stay physiologically calm so your mind is not hijacked with the skyrocketing stress hormones during fight-flight mode. This may involve:
- doing a quick body scan to notice how tense your muscles are feeling
- dropping your shoulders, unclenching your jaws, fists and relaxing all other muscles in your body
- using diaphragmatic/belly breathing – with the focus on breathing out slowly (or taking a shortcut and instead just singing to regulate your breathing)
It is particularly important to try these relaxation strategies before the time your child needs to go to the toilet or before you react to your child’s accident.
Key word – before – if possible. Being proactive is key. This involves understanding and predicting their toileting patterns and prioritising calm so we don’t join their chaos. I’m not talking about an hour-long meditation session in an isolated, candle-lit oasis. Unrealistic. I’m referring to just a minute … or even just a few breaths.
When your breathing is at a normal speed and your muscles are relaxed, you can then challenge any unhelpful thinking habits that are so common in toilet training. These may include:
- ‘catastrophic predictions’ – “they will never learn” or “they will still be in nappies at highschool!” – you get the idea. Unrealistic.
- ‘black/white thinking’ – this relates to the ‘pass or fail’ mentality of toilet training. This may play out as only celebrating when finishing toilet training completely rather than praising your/their effort and small milestones.
- ‘personalising’ or ‘self-critical’ statements – such as the parent criticising themselves if the training process is difficult.
- ‘discounting evidence’ – such as forgetting to consider the child’s neurodevelopmental stage as discussed above (i.e., not always self-motivated due to their frontal lobe development) as well as general toilet training facts (e.g., boys are slower on average to toilet train).
- ‘unfair comparison’ with siblings or other families who have different circumstances such as the child’s unique temperament, physical readiness and so on as well as the parent’s different background and coping resources at that time
With any of these thinking habits you’ve identified, you could develop an alternative, more helpful key statement to repeat to yourself regularly. This statement needs to be based on evidence from toilet training research (available from the knowledgeable Laura from Looloo) and your own personal experiences and challenges you’ve persevered with. For example, “toilet training can take time and it’s likely we will get there in the end”. This statement is both realistic and balanced. Find one YOU believe and make it your mantra.
Of course, parents who are toilet training should reach out for external support. Open communication with your partner or ‘village’ (daycare teachers included) can allow you to share the responsibility as well as share your frustration and impatience. We must celebrate the small wins – you are in this journey WITH your child.
When all is done and your child is fully toilet trained, you can revisit your listed myriad of emotions and add PRIDE. Pride in your kid’s accomplishment and pride in yourself for persevering. Nicely done mum/dad! Time for MORE positive reinforcement rewards- both for your child AND you!If you are struggling with stress or anxiety in general parenting, you’re welcome to reach out for support through my ‘Psychology for Mums -VIP Group’ where we focus on evidence-based proactive coping strategies in a supportive community. See www.drsarahbellbooth.com for more information.