‘My daughter was 3 in October and is still not toilet trained. In all other ways she’s pretty advanced but she just seems terrified of using the toilet. We’ve tried everything – musical toilets, reward charts, taking her to see around a nursery school and explaining she needs to be out of nappies to go. But for some reason she is terrified of going. She knows when she needs to go and I don’t think its laziness as when she hasn’t got a nappy on she doesn’t wet. She just cries and says she needs to go and sits on toilet but says her wee wee won’t come out. This can go on for 2 to 3 hours and she’s miserable the whole time. We hadn’t tried since before Christmas but tried training her again this week but she’s totally stressed out and has started crawling round the house saying she’s only a baby. I just wish I knew how to take the fear away for her. I don’t know what to do… But I do know the answer is not smacking her…’


It makes sense that you’re concerned that your three years old daughter’s not yet potty trained, because it’s natural as parents to hope that our children will be moving through the milestones when everyone else’s are doing so. It obvious that you’re a caring parent – that’s why you’re asking! And I’m so glad that you know that smacking isn’t the answer (that would only increase her anxiety even further).

You’ve tried different tactics and to date you’ve found out what isn’t helpful for your daughter. (That’s great – you’ve eliminated some possibilities!)

It seems there’s a high level of anxiety for her at present.

What does the potty look like to her?

So step one:

Choose to let go  – of your anxiety. When you can let go of your anxiety, she’s more likely to literally let go!

Figure out what it would take for you to be relaxed about this and what you can do if you sense your anxiety rising. Even focusing on your breathing can help at times when you begin to feel stressed. Breathe in till count of seven – out to count of eleven for several breaths.   Trust that this situation will naturally dissolve when you stay connected to her, in a way that shows  that you trust she’ll do this when she’s ready.

A key element to her becoming calmer is for her to sense your calmness.  Young children’s brains are still ‘under construction’ and at this age she is only beginning to emotionally regulate herself.  Young children rely on the parent to calm them down. This is why you choosing to be relaxed about this is so important.

And when she’s stressed she becomes emotionally flooded. Which means the ‘reasoning’ part of her brain is temporarily out of action, so trying to reason about being a ‘big girl for school’ won’t work at this point.  (In fact, if she’s worrying she’s ‘not a big girl’ it’ll increase her stress.)

Step Two:

You say, ‘I wish I could take her fear away.’ I’d suggest that you rather focus on being present to her in her anxiety. View this as an opportunity to reassure your daughter and to help her to be in touch with herself.

Reflect her experience and name her emotions.

Child: My wee won’t come out.

Mum: Your wee won’t come out! (Reflect what she’s telling you. Stay connected with her, whilst choosing to be calm about this).

If you sense her emotion, name the feelings. Maybe a tear runs down her cheek:

Mum: ‘You’re feeling sad?’ (Let your voice reflect that emotion).

Child nods.

Mum:  ‘Tell me more.’

In other words, rather than ‘taking the fear away for her’ this is a wonderful opportunity to help her to name, claim and tame her emotions.  (Emotional literacy is one of the most important gifts you can give your child).

Or she starts crawling  and saying she’s only a baby.

Child: ‘I’m only a baby.’

Mum: (on the floor, close to her) ‘You’re only a baby.’

Follow her lead. Mirror her words and be present to her mood and her actions. Show you are there for her. When she senses you’re okay with this she’s more likely to relax.

By being present to her without trying to change her story, she can begin to make sense of her story for herself.  (And you can gain huge insights too).

Here’s some other practical things you might try:

* Have you tried giving her a wetting doll (plus potty!) Give her the opportunity  to act out whatever she needs to with the doll might ease her anxiety.  And don’t be surprised if she plays out the same scenario repeatedly. By replaying it until she’s satisfied she’ll be able to release the bottled up feelings.

* I’m wondering whether she’s sitting on the big toilet (with an added toddler seat) or a little potty? Is the toilet itself what’s worrying her?   (You could ask her if she would prefer to sit on a potty or on the toilet. She needs to feel she has control of the situation.)

* When my children were young we used cloth nappies. And our children potty trained at a much younger age.  Apparently the level of absorbency of disposable nappies means that children don’t experience the sensation of being in ‘wet pants’, I wonder what would happen if you used towelling nappies.

* Give her plenty of liquids. Hopefully her bladder will then naturally do what its going to do.

*  Be a role model! Let her come to the loo when you go.

* Importantly ensure that the loo is a pleasant place to be. I’d suggest sing songs, read stories, whatever will help to make it a relaxed time.  But if nothing is happening, keep it ‘ no big deal’.  Indicate that you’re confident she’ll be come back the toilet when she’s ready.

Final thoughts:

* Keep in mind, ‘What really matters here?’  It’s going to be an issue for her if it’s an issue for you. If you’re feeling stressed about it, its not the time to try. The key thing is relationship, relationship, relationship. It’s easy as a parent to become worried about something like this but when she senses the security of your ‘no pressure / no anxiety ’ presence she’s more likely to let go of whatever she’s holding onto, (literally and metaphorically).

* A great resource is Margot Sunderland’s book ‘Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children – Helping Children with Feelings’.  She gives clear explanation how stories can give a child a means of dealing with challenges they face.

* You are the one who knows your child best. Trust your contuition (your conscious knowledge as well as your intuition) as to what’s needed and whether things will naturally shift .

* I’d recommend, when she does wee in the toilet, be careful no to go ‘over the top’ with praise.  For me it would be ‘Oh, you did a wee in the toilet!’  Let your eyes and tone of voice give the gentle affirmation.  She’ll have the inner satisfaction of knowing she’s done it.  Extrinsic praise can block her own awareness.

*  If there is no change and your ‘gut’ tells you there’s reason for concern, my recommendation would be to arrange a visit to a Play Therapist.  ‘Children’s toys are their words and play is their language.’  If there is something deep-seated that’s not naturally resolving, a skilled therapist will provide a gentle environment for your daughter to express what she needs.

* When you focus on relaxing and being present to her and her experience it’s very likely that, rather than solving the problem, you’ll find the problem naturally dissolves.