A bit like most things toddler and indeed parenting generally, you’ll find lots of different opinions and schools of thought on toilet training. If you’ve found an approach that works for your children already, great! If you’re about to start, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned from my own parenting experience as well as suggest some ideas for coping that fit with the ACT approach (which are sort of the same thing).
What can Relational Frame Theory add to toilet training?
Not as complicated as it sounds, don’t worry. Relational Frame Theory underpins ACT, and is about the science of language development. When toddlers learn to talk, they learn that a word can stand for an object. They also learn to make associations between their experiences, words and their feelings as they develop language. With toilet training, this could be both helpful and unhelpful. To make it work for you, you want to develop lots of positive associations with the potty, and then with the toilet. So when my daughter was about 18 months old, I bought her a potty with Winnie the Pooh on it. She then enjoyed decorating it with stickers. I then left it lying around in the living room for her to get used to seeing and enjoy looking at her stickers on it. She then moved on to playing with it before getting to the stage of sitting on it. When she was ready to start using it, she got a sticker each time she did. When she was ready to move on to the toilet, she also covered that in stickers too – which does admittedly take a bit of explaining whenever we have a new house guest.
Committed Action: taking a gradual approach to success
It might help to break toilet training up into a series of stages and smaller steps. For example, getting used to having a potty around, learning what the potty is for, sitting on the potty, having a wee in the potty, aiming to get wees into the potty increasingly more often, getting a poo into the potty, getting both wee and poo in the potty more often, using a potty out of the home, e.g. at toddler group, using a toilet, getting used to using the toilet regularly, weaning off the potty in favour of just the toilet, aiming to be accident free. For each step, it is helpful to have a think about how to support your child to achieve it and how to reward their progress – for example, stickers, small prizes to earn or chocolate buttons depending on your preferences.
Keeping up some sort of daily mindful activity with your child could help during toilet training to support attuning to your child’s feelings more generally. It can be a stressful time and it helps to stay connected. It also helps to remember that your relationship with your child is bigger than their toilet training success (or otherwise).
If you notice unhelpful thoughts pop up such as social comparisons with other children or potentially the unrealistic expectations of other people, it can be helpful to catch the thought and choose to be curious about it rather than immediately buy into it. For example, you could try imagining social comparison thoughts popping like bubbles, speeding past on a train in front of you or consider other parents talking about their toilet training experiences as passengers on a bus, where you are in charge of driving the bus (and choosing how to toilet train your own child) and you get to choose which thoughts or advice they have to give to listen to. It’s OK to choose to read what I have to say or not accordingly too, of course.
It is helpful to try to stay attuned to your childs and your own feelings and reflect on progress, being prepared to make changes to your plans if it’s not working well. For example, if you’ve decided to take a week off work and do intensive potty training but then discover your child spends the week having meltdowns every time they see the potty or keep getting bodily fluids on your cream carpet but don’t get any in the potty, you might want to consider whether they might not be ready yet for that kind of approach and consider slowing things down a bit.
There is a lot both practically and emotionally that can be helpful to be open and accepting towards when tackling potty training. For example, there will be mess on the road to success – how much mess and on what surfaces varies, the latter being the one you have more say in. Managing to use a potty could be an emotional process for your child – they might experience anxiety or fear with the new system until they get the hang of it, or they might feel angry or stressed if they feel pressured. If they pick up that you are disappointed or upset when it doesn’t go well, they might feel shame or guilt. For parents, there might be frustration when the process doesn’t go well, anxiety or pressure about feeling a need to “get on with it” if you’ve taken time off to achieve it in a short time or even guilt if you find your frustration coming out towards your child. Social comparisons could also be taunting you if your friend’s child had an easier time of it when they were learning. It might help to remember that all children are different, boys often take longer to be ready and to master the process than girls, and if you consider the adults you know, most are probably toilet trained aren’t they? So odds are, even if your child takes a bit longer for any reason, they will get there too.
- Praise successes, especially the small ones
2. Take a practical, matter of fact approach to clearing up accidents – if you’re frustrated, vent to your partner or a friend later (or use whatever other safe way for letting go of anger that works for you), but aim to keep calm about potty training around your toddler
3. Give you and your child time – there could be many months between first sitting on a potty and being accident free, it’s more of a marathon than a sprint
4. Always carry changes of clothes and a spare nappy and/or your own potty or child toilet seat if you’re out and about while toilet training – if your child has a meltdown in a public toilet because something about it puts them off, it’s really handy to have their familiar potty or nappy on hand to go in.
5. Be kind to yourself as well as your child if either of you feel frustrated, pressured or guilty – it can be a tough process for parents too.