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April 07, 2022

Potty Learning and Fear

Imagine you had been doing something one way your whole entire life multiple times per day. You were happy in that routine, or at least you weren't unhappy with it. But, then someone comes along and asks you to change that thing. Guess what? You can't do it anymore, or you have to change the way you were doing that thing significantly. Some people, because of their personality or temperament, might have an easy time with this change. Others might experience worry, fear, or anxiety. Some of us might adjust quickly to a change like this, while others might take awhile. 

Potty learning is just like this. We're asking really young children to make a pretty significant and different change to something they have done (eliminate into a diaper) for all of their lives. Even when we take a slow, child-led approach there are just going to be a certain number of children that experience some fear through the process. 

Approaching Fear During Potty Learning

For my children, there has been a range of emotions approaching different aspects of potty learning. But, I think that all of them have had some moments of being apprehensive about some aspect of the process. So, I wanted to share some tips to approach potty learning fear in a respectful and child-led way.


As with all things in Montessori, so often the root of an issue can be handled by looking at our own behavior as the prepared adult. Here are some ideas for the adults to address fear with potty learning:
  • Shift your perspective: Fear can be a normal part of learning a new process, routine, or habit. It doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong or that significant changes need to be made. Fear can come and go and that's alright. 
  • Empathize but don't Minimize: "I see that you're afraid of your poop. That's new for you. I'm here with you." We don't need to minimize real feelings, even those of toddlers. While we might know there is no real danger for our child here, our children's feelings are very real and we should acknowledge those without minimizing their experience. If they feel heard and supported they will be more willing to take that next step. 
  • Slow down: Examine your routine and process and slow down where you can to allow your child to process. With more time, a toddler may be better able to accept and process the specific aspects of potty learning. Also accept that the process itself might just go slowly. There's no predetermined timeline for the potty learning process.  
  • Avoid a power struggle/pressure: Don't make this a "you issue" by trying to control the fear. Let go of your desire for power over any aspect of the process. If your child is super afraid of poop for example, don't feel like you have to force them to come help clean up an accident. Or don't talk continuously about why they shouldn't be afraid or about the process in general. Basically, keep it cool and casual. 
  • Accept differences: The potty learning process won't look the same for every child. Some kids might need more movement to be comfortable, some might need more time, some might need more privacy, or other's might need you to hold their hand. Find and accept what feels best to your child.
  • Get comfortable with the process: Children are really good about sensing our own apprehension during this process, so we have to identify where our own fear might be. Are we comfortable with poop? Are we worried about a mess? Are we feeling pressure? Our confidence is contagious and the more we can be comfortable, the more our child can be too. 


There are also some things that we can directly do with our children to help eliminate some of the fear they may be experiencing around the potty learning process:
  • Increase exposure without pressure: Bring your toddler into the bathroom with you, involve them in sibling's bathroom (if the other child is alright with that) or diaper changes, watch a pet or animal outside eliminate. Basically, do whatever you can do to normalize the process without specifically addressing the child's own process. Avoid using these experiences to pressure your child, but see them simply as exposure. 
  • Increase participation in process: Control feels safe. Give your child more control over the process by increasing how much they are participating. Maybe they get to decide where the potty will be. Maybe they get to pick out their undies. Maybe they get to try wiping after a diaper change, or flush, or wipe up something, or throw something away. Whatever it is, look for ways to help your child actively control and participate the situation, especially in the areas where they may have more fear.
  • Read books: Similar to real life exposure, books provide an opportunity to minimize the pressure while giving toddlers a calm example of what happens during the potty learning process. When the process doesn't feel new or different, it can feel less scary
  • Give them Time: If the fear is overwhelming, if they really need a break. Do it. It's ok to pause the process and protect your child's emotional wellbeing over a predetermined potty learning schedule.
Montessori potty learning can be challenging for toddlers, here are some tips to help them overcome their fear and get comfortable with the potty.

Has your child experienced fear while potty learning? How did you overcome it?


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