Two main psychological tools increase motivation. Positive reinforcement involves giving the child something she likes, such as hugs, toys, treats, or praise. Negative reinforcement enables the child to escape or avoid something unpleasant, such as escaping dirty diapers or avoiding upset parents because she uses the potty. Positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement.
Threats or punishment during potty training can backfire dramatically. Fear mobilizes children's inborn fight-or-flight impulse. The child may not fight back or flee at the time, but will start avoiding the potty, and his aggressive behavior toward siblings, peers, pets, parents, or caregivers may increase.
Many parents don't know when they have provoked their child's flight response. When a youngster says that she doesn't need to use the potty, her parents may think she is lying. They may not realize that fear propelled her to try to avoid going potty. Children may flee psychologically by ignoring all thoughts about elimination to the point that they tune out their bodies and don't realize they need to relieve themselves, although their parents may see the signs very clearly. Some youngsters struggle with themselves, unable to relax and let go so much so that they can't urinate for many hours at a stretch, even as they are screaming in pain from an overly full bladder. Others withhold stool, becoming constipated or even encopretic — a condition resulting in chronic, uncontrollable soiling. Initially very painful, the nerve endings soon become numb so children feel nothing. It's easy to see why experts' number one potty training rule is never to punish!
Having pants stay clean, dry, and odor-free motivates youngsters who dislike wet, messy pants, but most children don't mind them. In fact, many are quite attached to their diapers, wet or dry, smelly or not. In general, children have no natural aversion to waste. They love to smear, mash, pat, and taste. This behavior is normal, but can make them very sick, so supervise carefully.
Rewards must be sufficiently enjoyable to outweigh children's reluctance to go to the potty. Pleasing a parent matters lots to most children, so hugs and kisses and other expressions of approval may keep them motivated. Spending one-on-one time with you will feel like a great reward, so when you accompany your youngster to the bathroom and serve as an attentive audience, your presence can provide a powerful incentive.
Could my child be having accidents just to spite me?
Purposeful “accidents” may be a way to get attention. Even negative parental attention feels better to most children than being ignored. Try being matter-of-fact about accidents, and give lots of positive attention if your child so much as goes near the potty.
Problems motivating children often coincide with flagging parental motivation. Because parents feel disinclined to run to the bathroom each time their toddler beckons, they begin foot dragging in hopes their youngster's desire for company can be forestalled. To stay motivated, parents should remember that they can either drop what they're doing right now and fulfill their child's request for company in the bathroom, or drop what they're doing in a few minutes and spend time cleaning up an accident.
Sometimes stickers, small toys, treats, or special privileges can reduce demands on parents' time. Providing tangible evidence of the child's accomplishment can help instill pride in a job well done, and by doling out rewards, parents remain involved without having to spend so much time sitting in the bathroom with their child. However, some experts point out that playing into toddler greed and giving prizes instead of attention warps children's values. A preprinted smiley face is no substitute for a parent's smiling face. If you give treats and toys, it's important to give positive attention, too.
Reward potty progress with a special phone call to Grandma Lois, Uncle Mark, Cousin David, or any family friend willing to “ooh” and “ah” over the latest victory. Put your child on the line, or be sure she listens in as you share the good news. This means a lot to little folks.
Anyone who has ever tried to diet knows how difficult it is to practice self-denial today to reap a reward in a month or two. Therefore, a good reward is something your child can enjoy immediately. Promises of a chance to put a quarter in a grocery store gumball machine tomorrow, to hear an extra bedtime story later in the evening, or to receive a special toy in a week do not motivate most children. It's more effective to offer an on-the-spot hug, sticker, or story.
Children relish doing what friends and other family members do. If toddlers regularly see parents using the toilet, they are likely to want to copy them. Saying that using the potty makes them a “big girl” or a “big boy” just like an idolized parent, or older sibling, friend, or relative can motivate them!
Modeling is the most potent form of teaching. Having a coach explain how to dribble a ball isn't nearly as effective as having him demonstrate. Because children attending day care centers have many opportunities to observe and mimic more accomplished peers, they often master potty training earlier than stay-at-home peers. Similarly, younger siblings learn more quickly if older brothers, sisters, and/or parents allow them to watch. Let your child watch you use the bathroom or find someone else who is willing to serve as a model.
Unfortunately, the prospect of becoming a big boy or girl doesn't always strike toddlers as appealing. While little folks sometimes enjoy the greater freedom, independence, autonomy, and respect that come with using the potty, at other times they grasp the downside — they are saddled with big responsibilities. Big people do less for them and expect them to do more for themselves. In fact, the pressures for increased maturity inherent in potty training often cause children to stop progressing or to regress in other areas. Parents can help toddlers overcome their ambivalence about growing up by reducing demands in other areas, tolerating more clinging, and providing extra doses of TLC.