Recently our three year old daughter has been having trouble going to the bathroom. She had a rash about a week ago, all healed now, and still has fears about going because it was so painful that one time. Any ideas on helping her work through this?
We usually have to sit and talk about it until she is so uncomfortable (because she has to go so bad) that I just hold her until she goes, while she is crying and screaming “no!” I feel awful, but she is always in good spirits after it's all done. This has been going on for about 4 days now and it's really been hard for all of us, especially her! Thanks for any help!
Dear Potty Petrified,
Here's what I think will help your daughter the most. She's working on her fear of the pain she had, but there's no pain any longer. She can't tell, because the emotional memory is embedded in her mind, and will be there until she's able to cry it all through. What will help is for you to be serene with her while she faces her feelings. And not to postpone facing them, not to try to avoid her crying. She needs to have those cries, is built to have those cries, and as long as you are close by and supportive, all the best things are happening. You're there, there's no pain, it's only old fear that's rolling off. You can read more about this in our Helping Children Conquer Their Fears article.
So when you see that she needs to go, just get close, and tell her, “Sweetie, it's time to pee. I'll be with you.” and let the crying begin. You don't need to force her to the toilet: at whatever point she begins to cry, that's a place to stop, be present, stay with her, and wait until the crying subsides a bit.
Then, say, “OK, here we go. The hurting is all over. I'll stay with you so you can find that out yourself.” Then continue to stay, listen, and let her work on her fears. Most likely, since she's been having such good long cries, she's also working on other painful experiences…this pretext has become a good can-opener that lets her pour out other fears. You may see her yawn in the midst of crying–that's a sign that what she's working on was indeed something that involved illness or pain. We don't yet know why, but yawns help the healing process when it's a physical thing that happened to the child or grownup.
You don't need to be afraid of this process, or to feel too badly for her. You did well by her, her body healed, and now, she's healing from the feelings. With your warmth and help. Guide her along in this process, don't talk too much (this distracts her from the work at hand, and doesn't lessen that work, just wears you out and her too), and let her do the hard work, with you as her guide and partner. She'll become more courageous in other ways because of this opportunity.