Toilet-training regression has got to be among the top three universal parenting issues, along with teething, and getting babies to sleep through the night. That’s probably the most important thing to know about the subject: it’s not just you. It happens to most parents at one point or another.
The other important point to note is that there really is no difference in whether your child regresses at 3 years old or at 4. No matter when it happens, toilet-training regression boils down to the same underlying causes. More to the point, the strategy for dealing with the problem from the parents’ perspective is exactly the same.
Now we’re not talking about an occasional accident. That can happen to anyone. Unless it happens on a regular basis, there’s no reason to become alarmed. In fact, if the nursery school bus driver takes a longer route home on Thursdays and your daughter always gets off the bus with wet panties on a Thursday, it’s fairly clear what’s going on. You can ask the nursery school teacher to remind her to use the toilet before getting on the bus.
Clearly we’re not talking about that type of “regular” accident, but an ongoing, everyday occurrence in which a child fails to make it to the toilet after toilet-training has long been successfully past tense.
So let’s begin at the beginning: it’s crucial to determine whether your child has a physical problem that is causing the regression. Does your child cry when she wets? Does she hold herself and grimace? A urinary tract infection (UTI) or constipation may make it difficult for your child to control urination (peeing) and defecation (bowel movements).
That said, while health issues must obviously be addressed with a visit to the pediatrician, perhaps the primary concern with toilet-training regression goes back even further. The real beginning starts with your reaction to an accident. Your job as a parent is to refrain from blaming or resenting your child for wetting or for a lack of bowel control. But of course, this is easier said than done.
Toilet-training regression, first of all, is a step back. That’s hard to take. No doubt you and your child worked hard at toilet-training and felt some pride at the accomplishment. It’s normal to look forward, not backward.
It feels like a failure for both of you.
In addition to feeling like your good hard work has been undone, there is the mess and the smell. There is the sense of embarrassment.
These feelings are understandable. Any parent would relate. But the better you are at NOT showing these feelings, the sooner your child will get back on track with toileting.
How Good An Actor Are You?
So here’s your chance to show your star quality—to find your inner Sarah Bernhardt. It may seem a little dishonest, essentially not being real with
your child, especially if you’ve always said you’d never lie to her, but keep in mind that the charade is for her sake. Only by persuading her that accidents are no big deal will you be able to get her past this time in her childhood. That means bucking up and showing how utterly unmoved you are by what has happened.
You can just note the fact that an accident has occurred, clean it up with your child’s assistance, and offer an encouraging word. For instance, you might say, “I see you’ve had an accident, let’s clean up. Can you put your underpants in the sink? No worries, soon you’ll be staying drying again, I’m sure.”
You need to be so chill. Just remain matter of fact and blasé. That’s the ticket to getting you both back to the high ground of dry underpants!
Now that we’ve ticked off health issues and appropriate parental reaction to accidents, it’s time to talk emotional cause. Cause is critical here because if you can identify the cause of the accidents, you gain the key to the solution.
The reason you want to eliminate physical cause is because that’s something that can generally be solved with a visit to the doctor. But the fact is, 9 times out of 10, toileting regression is emotional, rather than physical. And unlike a UTI, there’s no magic pill to make the emotions go away.
Not only is there no magic pill to make the emotions go away, there are so many possible emotional issues that could cause toileting regression that they are too numerous to, um, enumerate, as opposed to the possible physical problems that might cause accidents, which are not very many. Still, some examples of emotional causes can be cited, and may be used as a loose guide for parents seeking a cause for a child’s distress. The emotional causes have one thing in common: they result from major changes to the child’s life.
Some examples of life-changing issues that might cause toilet-training regression:
- A parents’ divorce
- The death of a loved one, such as a grandparent or even a pet!
- Going to a new daycare center, nursery school, or elementary school
- Social problems with peers
- Birth of a new sibling
- A parent’s hospitalization
Once you identify the cause that is behind the toilet-training regression, it becomes possible to address the cause. That doesn’t mean you can reverse the problem. You can’t exactly wind back the clock to before the time of a divorce, death, or birth. But you can talk about the situation with your child, show sympathy and patience. You can help your child work through the issue.
The thing is, that letting her know you know what’s bugging her, gets you halfway through the rough patch. The accidents are her way of telling you something is wrong. If you give her recognition and show her you understand, she may be able to stop “notifying” you about the problem. She may not feel the need to continue signaling you with her accidents. You already know what’s wrong, so there’s no need for her to keep wetting or making number two.
Children don’t have much control over their environments. Things seem to happen despite them. Parents divorce without consulting children. People move for the sake of a job sometimes despite the difficulty this will necessarily cause the other members of the family. Toileting is often the one area in which a child can exert control. So this is the natural place for the child to signal to the world that something is wrong, something that makes her feel a loss of control. This is the way a child says, “Look at me. I have a problem that needs solving. I’m in pain. I’m confused.”
An infant can only cry and the parents must guess at the source of discomfort. When a child is old enough to toilet-train, accidents may take the place of crying, especially when the child has no words for what is bothering her. She may not understand what divorce means. She just knows that the atmosphere is different and that one of her parents is less often at home. Something feels different.
“There ARE No Accidents”
The only way she has to express that is to regress in toilet-training. Which makes you wonder why they call them “accidents” to begin with. There’s usually nothing accidental about them at all. The issue is found in discovering the purpose!
A child having accidents needs extra attention and love. Yes, you may have to begin toilet training all over again, with treats and prizes and praise. We all wish there were a magic wand to wave instead because learning this parenting lesson is surely not easy.
You’ll need to take lots of deep breaths. Because this too, is part of being there for your child with unconditional love. It’s about loving your child enough to go backward, because sometimes going backward is the only way forward.