Power Struggles During Potty Training


My two-and-a-half-year old won’t poop on the potty. It’s turning into a power struggle between us! Any suggestions?

@thinkstock.com/FuseMOLLY: This came from a mom based in Vancouver,  British Columbia. She added that her daughter is doing really well with peeing in the potty but refuses to poop in the potty. She’s resorted to letting her daughter run around the house naked thinking that she’ll know when she has to go and will sit on the potty, but she doesn’t and ends up pooping on the floor. She’s even tried hanging out at the potty, but that doesn’t work either. She really doesn’t want this to become an ongoing power struggle like so many other things at this age when you have a headstrong kid.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): I think she’s right about the power struggle issue. Something else to consider is that the child might actually be unaware that she can control the act of pooping.

If it were me, I think I might try putting the child back in diapers again for a short period and see if that helps. Sometimes backing up will get you ahead.

MOLLY: What else can she try?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think that she can try a couple of approaches. Personally, I’ve always wondered about trying to toilet train right in the middle of the two’s when children are the most oppositional because of their limited vocabulary and rational thought is still very immature.

Sometimes it’s better to wait and let the child initiate it herself.

MOLLY: What about trying to toilet train before a child is two?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think that’s an option, too, but I think you have to be careful about how early to start. Parents really have to gear it to whether the child is physiologically ready for it. Some children’s bodies aren’t ready for it even at two, and others may need to wait until they are three.

As with everything in parenting, we have to gear it to the needs and abilities of our own child.

MOLLY: Are there any good resources out there?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think there’s a really good resource, a book called, “Let’s Get This Potty Started” by Dr. Heather Wittenberg.  I thought it was a very thorough look at what’s involved and how to approach this. She also talks a lot about avoiding the power struggle.

Potty-Training the Child Who Won’t Poop on the Potty


My Child is trained for peeing but will only poop in the diaper (not on the potty)!

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It’s not unusual at all for children to train for peeing on the potty before they master pooping on the potty. Peeing seems to be easier to control than pooping.

We often hear of early pooping-on-the-potty success as  happening accidentally, almost as a byproduct from simply sitting down and peeing. The child may even be surprised: “Oh, what was that?” This is certainly cause for celebration, though it by no means indicates the child is fully potty-trained yet.

MOLLY: I’m trying to train my little guy now (he’s 2), and when he has to go poop, he runs and hides in the closet. When I ask if if he wants to go on the potty he shakes his head vigorously and says “NO!” Although he pees on the potty all the time, he’s adamant about not sitting on the potty when he has to poop.

MOM: I’ve seen that before many times, Molly. That he goes into the closet… he knows when he has to go. That’s actually a good sign because it shows he’s aware of what the feeling of needing to empty your bowels means and he will go somewhere to alleviate that sensation.

Here’s the idea about potty-training: In the beginning, infants and babies have no idea when they’re peeing or when they’re pooping. The next stage is that they become aware after they’ve pee’d or after they’ve pooped. The third stage of toileting development comes when a child masters an awareness before the evacuation occurs that allows him to act on the knowledge.

So for your little guy, he’s well on his way because he’s aware ahead of time that he’s going to poop and he goes someplace and does it. The trick is to get him on the potty at the point that he almost can’t hold it in and he experiences going on the potty. He’ll see the delight of his mother and father and he’ll want to perform again.

MOLLY: Then just keep trying it that way?

MOM: Right, so I wouldn’t be at all concerned about a child that only pees in the potty at first.

MOLLY: But, if the child is insisting on pooping in the diaper and not on the potty? He will even want to put on a diaper just before he’s going to poop..

MOM: Not unusual, either, in the process of things. It’s a process really.

It can be helpful if the kid has an older sibling or older friend they can watch use the toilet. Show the young child the older kid’s poop in the toilet and you might find that the concept finally clicks. In the toddler’s brain, he likely already wants to do everything the older child does. This kind of early peer pressure, or rather, peer example, can be much more helpful than seeing a parent use the toilet.

MOLLY: Is there anything you can do if the child insists on putting on a diaper to poop but is totally potty trained for peeing?

MOM: This is a mastery/ control issue and this is when it occurs – in the twos. Potty training is part of the control issue. I would let it go on for a while. But realize that it may take a while for boys who only stand up to pee. Encourage him to sit down to pee to begin with.

I would also use pull-ups and and an incentive, maybe a sticker chart or other small reward system.

MOLLY: What are the possible long-term consequences if the child doesn’t potty train by four?

MOM: If by 4-years old, the child is still not fully potty trained, consider seeing a pediatrician to be sure there are no medical issues. If there are no medical problems, there certainly will be psychological problems. What you see is an overt control fight between the child and the parent that gets played out not just in toilet training but in much of every day life. It also gets played out in school and in friendships where the kid needs to control the whole scene regardless of other people’s needs. It can become a very serious issue if the child is unable or unwilling to toilet train. I would suggest at that point (or even earlier) that the parents seek help from a child therapist.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success with potty training. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.