In Potty Training Experience: Playlistening, we explored the healing role that laughter can play when a child has unworkable fears. The mother who wrote in had a three-and-a-half year old daughter who was absolutely terrified of using the toilet. Our two-part remedy for those fears was to first get laughter going around toileting, which, as that article shows, the mother and father did beautifully.
Step Two involves Staylistening, a kind and effective way to work with a child to dispel his fears.
Fears stick in a child’s mind during moments of perceived danger or isolation, and they don’t go away by themselves. They can take hold of a child’s behavior, and even dictate that behavior. If you don’t allow the fear an outlet, it “collects interest” over time, and gradually commandeers more and more of a child’s relaxed creativity, making her behavior ever more extreme—deeper dependency on diapers, for instance, and then avoidance of every entry into the bathroom.
What releases fear is a natural process that children use again and again in infancy and early childhood, unless adults insist that they stop. (It works for adults, as well.) Fear releases when a child cries loudly with few tears, trembles, thrashes, arches, sweats, and feels deeply threatened by the closeness of a caring adult, or threatened by some other perfectly benign thing.
In this case, the daughter had vomited, screamed, cried and trembled when her diaper was taken away, and, alarmed, her parents had given her diaper back, feeling that this was far too much stress for her to experience.
But their child’s emotional episode was brought on by her genius for recovery from fear. Their child was doing exactly what she needed to do. She simply needed her parents by her side, calm and confident, until the emotional episode passed, a sign that she had overcome a good chunk of fear.
So, after doing a couple of weeks of Playlistening, securing laughter around the issues of peeing and pooping in the toilet (and elsewhere), they moved to this more challenging stage of Staylistening. I assured them that their presence while their daughter felt her terrified feelings would have true healing power. Confident and steady, they learned to stay very close to their daughter during these frightened moments, and offer calm reassurance.
The things that are helpful to say while a child is offloading fear all point to the safety of the present moment. “I’m right here, and I’ll make sure that you are safe.” “You are doing just fine. I’m with you.” “I know you want your diaper, but you can pee without it.” “Your body knows how to pee and poop without your diaper.” “You’re safe on the toilet, and I’ll keep holding you.” “You’re doing a good job, sweetie. You’re a brave girl.” “If your poop hurts coming out, it will only last a little while. Then you’ll feel better.” These are the kinds of things that a child with fears of toileting, or fears of pain during toileting, needs to hear from her parents while the fear grips her mind.
When saying these things, “calming the child down” isn’t the goal. Quite the opposite. The steadier the parent sounds, and the more effective the reassurance, the deeper the feelings of fear the child is able to express, because there’s a safe person right there willing to witness the child’s emotional experience.
A parent’s presence and confidence encourages full expression of the true depth of the emotion. The child’s mind vigorously scrubs the offending feelings, releasing, rather than repressing the child’s fear.
When a child’s mind has expelled a chunk of fear in the safety of a loving parent’s arms, the child becomes calm, stops fighting and panicking, and leans into the parent who listened. Sometimes, a child will sleep deeply. Sometimes, he or she will calmly look around, as if in a new world, for several minutes, and then jump up to play, happy and lighthearted.
There’s a visible tone of relief, if the parent has been able to listen until the child is done. And, over time, the child’s behavior becomes more confident. Proof that the fear is remedied is there for all to see.
Here’s part of this parent’s experience. In the beginning, her child was so terrified of spending a night without a diaper that she vomited—this was true terror they were battling together. The parents set a “diaper-free by Christmas” goal, and told their daughter that every weekend would be diaper free, a time to practice with their support. Here’s the final part of their story.
“This particular weekend we were aiming for three consecutive days without diapers. On Friday afternoon we took away the diapers. That night was extremely difficult for her and for us. She kept saying she had to go to the bathroom and then denying she had to go once one of us would take her.
“Finally, after many denials, her Dad held her on the toilet and told her that he knew she could do it and that we’d seen her do it before. She screamed and writhed and raged for at least 45 minutes until she finally fell asleep with her arms around her Dad while seated on the toilet. That felt really awful. We put her to bed and talked about not continuing but also realized that she had again worked through substantial fear and not left the bathroom. Perhaps that was a small victory.
“The rest of the weekend was fun in that we continued with our plans to see friends, buy and decorate a Christmas tree, and watch movies together. She peed the bed every night after having held it in most of the day, and pooped the bed one night of the weekend, holding it in the rest of the time.
“The encouraging thing was that between bouts of having to go to the toilet, she was happy and relaxed and talking about buying small bags of diapers because Christmas was coming soon and she wouldn’t need them for long.
“We encouraged her, told her she’d succeeded in pooping without diapers for the first time, and praised her unsuccessful attempts to pee and poop on the toilet. She was given back the diapers on Monday morning. The following Friday was the Friday before Christmas, and we took the diapers away again.
“That evening, she began to dance around, saying she had to go to the bathroom, and then denying she had to go. Soon she was crying, screaming “‘Don’t make me, please give me a diaper!’ and sweating, shaking, and hyperventilating. It was clear that she had to poop, and it would take another major session in order to work through the fear.
“We decided because of our stress levels and our desire to enjoy Christmas that we would give her the diapers back. We told her we were extremely proud of how hard she’d worked and that we were going to take a break from toilet training. She threw her arms up in the air and yelled ‘Yippee!’ followed quickly by ‘Can I have a diaper right now?’
“Her grandma came up with the analogy of her dad’s triathlon training: he would work hard and then take a break so his body wouldn’t get too tired. She reminded her that we had seen her dad finish the triathlon and that we knew that she would finish her training too.
“The day after Christmas, after talking about it, she started wearing panties again. With no problem at all she started to pee on the toilet. She would tell us she had to go and one of us would go with her and she would pee. She also told her Dad to move the diaper pail, wipes and pad into her baby brother’s room because she wouldn’t need them any more. She still hadn’t pooped but she was clearly taking ownership of the process. However, she continued to wet the bed nightly.
“The following day we left on a family trip. The first night away she successfully peed on the toilet a number of times. She was no longer holding it in. Late afternoon she started to say that she had to go to the bathroom and then deny it immediately. She would sit on the toilet and then jump off. This behavior lasted about an hour. We had decided that we would likely have to hold her on the toilet again until she was able to poop. She called mom into the bathroom and told her she had to poop. Mom said she would help her and within two minutes she had pooped in the toilet. Twenty minutes later, she announced she had to go again and then did. It was absolutely anti-climactic—all of a sudden it was so easy.
“The three-year-old from the other family we were with had our daughter act as his “privacy guard” while he used the toilet, and he would act as hers. On one particular occasion they came out of the bathroom together and our daughter announced ‘Daniel pooped and peed – I just peed.’ Daniel’s mom asked him, ‘Who wiped your bum?’ and he replied, ‘She did!’ She had gone from toilet terror to toilet accomplice in a few short hours! And since that day, she has worn panties and wet the bed only once. Thank you for your advice! It really worked!”