Potty Training: 3 Years and Counting

This blog grew out of my desire to tell this story. The “current” portion of this story takes place in the middle of December, but for various reasons, I didn’t add it until now. This was very difficult for me to write, and while I don’t feel the writing is up to my usual standards, I felt I needed to get it out there. So, for better or worse, here it is:

My daughter is 4½, and she’s been potty training for three years now. She hasn’t had an accident in three weeks, but it will take a lot longer than that before I’m convinced she’s “got it.” Recently, I was lamenting to my mother how I’m completely at a loss as to what to do. I can find no books, no articles, no stories, no blog posts, nothing that deals with this. Apparently, the longest anyone on the Internet has ever struggled with potty training is about six months, and that’s seen as freakishly long. I’ve talked with doctors, I’ve talked with teachers, I’ve talked with other parents, and no one has any practical advice.

Then my mother said something brilliant in its simplicity: “There are probably plenty of people struggling with this, but no one wants to admit it.”

It’s true. We all love to believe that our little snowflakes are uniquely special, and our struggles as parents are uniquely difficult. Even so, none of us like to admit our failings as parents. The truth is, billions of people have become parents before now, and there probably isn’t much new out there. Is my daughter the absolute most difficult child to potty train in the history of human civilization? Probably not.

So, I’ll do it. I’ll share our story. Maybe, just maybe, I can start a wider discussion about what happens when a child resists potty training for years, not months.

It all started at Christmas 2011 when we got her a potty chair as a gift. My wife was about three months pregnant with our son. My daughter was showing some early signs of potty readiness. We agreed that having her potty trained before the new baby arrived would be awesome. It was optimistic, but not impossible. Some setbacks when the new baby arrived were to be expected, but that was factored into our plans.

First, we gave her a couple weeks of just having the potty as a toy. She’d sit on it, she’d let her animals sit on it. It was a chair (and occasionally a hat) at that point. Then we started talking a little more about what it actually was. We put it in the bathroom. We let her sit on it. Occasionally, she’d squirt a few drops into the potty, more out of lucky timing than anything.

She took to it well. She started WANTING to use the potty. She started to get a sense of her body’s signals. She started putting things in the potty more than she put them in the diaper. Things were looking good.

We bought her first video, Elmo’s Potty Time. She watched it over and over. She sang the songs, she recited the lessons. She still had a few accidents here and there, but overall, we felt like we were just about there.

Then our son was born. As expected, there were some setbacks and some sibling struggles. Our son had some constipation troubles, so he got a lot of extra attention on the changing table as we worked to manually assist his bowel movements. She wanted more attention, and she decided the changing table was the place to get it.

She started asking for diapers. She started having more accidents. We’d talk with her about it, we’d encourage her, we’d try to give her more attention so she didn’t feel the need to force it from us through accidents. Things got better, then they got worse, then they got better again. We struggled back and forth; first it was the new baby to blame, then it was my wife returning to work after maternity leave, then it was our son’s constipation, then it was me being a terrible father. We were looking at one year of potty training, and we hadn’t seen a significant improvement in a while. We fought, we yelled, we cried.

We were stalled. She was roughly 75% potty trained, and had been for a while. I read books, I read articles. I scoured Google for hints and clues. Surely, someone somewhere had experienced this and written about it. We tried sticker charts and bribes. We tried logic. We tried timers. We tried everything the “experts” suggested.

We tried starting over: we put her in diapers for a couple weeks, and never mentioned the potty. That seemed promising. She started taking an interest on her own again, and we let her guide us as to her readiness. We got her back into undies during the day, then a little while later we added nights. Everything seemed to be fine, but she’d still have a random accident once in a while, maybe every couple of weeks.

A year and a half of potty training, and her three-year check up. A discussion with her pediatrician offered nothing. Every time we left the house with her, we were terrified. We stopped at every bathroom we passed to try to prevent accidents. We fought, we yelled, we cried.

Two years of potty training. Now our son was approaching 18 months, and we were starting to consider potty training him. He wasn’t really showing an interest yet, so we didn’t push it, but we agreed that we should keep an eye out for signals from him. If nothing else, we hoped having him fully trained might motivate her.

Two and half years of potty training, and her four-year check up. More discussion with her pediatrician, but still no help. She would be starting preschool in the fall, and it was expected that she’d be potty trained. She was excited about school, so we tried that as leverage.

Finally, a breakthrough. Out of nowhere, she seemed to get it. She would announce her need to go, then run to the bathroom. She would go, wipe, flush, wash hands, everything all by herself. Accidents became pretty rare, maybe once a month, maybe even less. Her trips to the bathroom tended to be long, but that was such a minor issue; we didn’t care at all.

Then, she started preschool. We were nervous, but hopeful. Maybe a little peer pressure and some experienced teachers could help drive this home. The first few days, her teachers said she was doing OK, but tended to goof around and stall in the bathroom. That cleared up, and she had no problem using the potty at school.

Great. Except the problems at home started to increase again. The accidents became more frequent, back to every week or two. She couldn’t seem to remember the correct order—potty, wipe, pants up, flush, wash hands. She threw a fit every time we mentioned the potty. She threw a fit every time we asked her to pull her pants up before she washed her hands. We fought, we yelled, we cried.

There were fights. There were screaming matches. There were even a couple spankings. Finally, I put together my last-ditch effort: the Big Girl Box.

The Big Girl Box is a present that she gets to open after one month without an accident. We’re about a week away, and I’m on edge. I’m trying to back off and let her take charge, but she goes SO LONG without using the potty. She waits until the absolute last possible second. She holds it long enough to constipate herself. She’s had a few “near” accidents that leave her with damp undies. She still gets really mad if I ask her to go potty. Or wash her hands. Or pull her pants up. So I try to back off again. I want her to make it. I want her to do it on her own. I want to believe she can do it on her own, but the evidence keeps telling me otherwise. I honestly am incapable of imagining a life that doesn’t include obsessing over the potty all day, every day.

We fight, we yell, we cry.

Now we’re a couple weeks away from our three-year anniversary of starting potty training. My son is starting to use the potty, and he’s off to a good start. Maybe we’re approaching a point at which we can call our daughter “potty trained.”

I’m still terrified. What if I’m such a terrible father that it takes me three years to teach my son to use the potty? Have I scarred my daughter for life after three years of teaching, pleading, scolding, shaming, begging, screaming, and everything else? Will my marriage survive another three years of potty training? How much is my current state of mind colored by this?

Of course, the people I talk to about this all have the same golden nugget of parenting advice: hang in there, it’ll get better. Well, you know, after three years, I’m not convinced it will. Even if it does, it will take a while to repair the damage that three years of potty training has done to my family, to my marriage, and to me. (That’s assuming that my daughter is done with potty training and that my son potty trains in a reasonable amount of time.)

Besides, “hang in there, it’ll get better” is just about the most useless thing you can say to someone with depression. Yes, I’ll hang in there. It will get better. Just as soon as I snap out of it and cheer up, right?

I would love to hear other stories of long, drawn-out potty training. I’m especially interested in the “tipping point” at which your child actually got it. Was it anything you did? Did it just happen one day? Was it sudden or gradual? Were you ever able to stop obsessing over it?