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My child is scared of the potty

Scared of the potty: What can I do?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chat with a nanny on social media and she was keen to help out some of our readers, and so we ask to see if there were any specific problems that she could help with. Annie the Nanny has a wealth of experience, and we were sure she would be able to help with some of the more complex issues our readers are experiencing.

We had a few great questions come in, so over the next couple of weeks she will be answering the best of them.

“{Emily} is scared of the potty and the toilet – if I ask her if she wants to go without a nappy, she has a meltdown – she is genuinely scared and although I am in no immediate rush to potty train, I would like to try and get her over this fear. She is 2 and 8 months.”

mum trying to potty train

This is a tough problem and I can understand why you’d like to solve it. It’s perfectly normal for children to develop fears of certain things but whether they are transitory or hang around have a lot to do with how you, as the parent react to those fears. Let me give you an example how fears develop and persist. One family I worked with once had a little boy of around three who had a terrible fear of fire. Nobody in the family knew where this fear of fire originated from. They hadn’t had a fire at their home, nor did they know anyone who had been affected by one. They didn’t think he’d seen some scary fire story on TV either, but nevertheless their little boy was deeply concerned every time his mother went away that she would die in a fire. He would have a complete melt down every time she left the house, so much so that mom soon didn’t want to go anywhere in case it brought on another panic attack. They consulted everyone they knew and spent lots of time on the phone discussing the problem with friends to see if anyone could help. They even asked their son why he felt like that, trying to reassure him over and over again

When I came on the scene, the first thing I noticed was all the attention that the family had directed toward this problem. Everyone was concerned. The trouble with all that well intentioned concern was that it was perpetuating the situation, drawing more and more attention to the fear thereby guaranteeing it was going to hang around. Mom stayed home because she was terrified he would have a meltdown yet by doing so, she was ensuring that the very meltdowns she wanted to stop would continue. By giving in to her son’s fear she reinforced in her son’s mind there was something to be scared of.
So how does this apply to you? Well, Emily has a fear. How or why she developed it, nobody knows. The only important thing now is how you react to it. So here’s what I would do. First off, you have to remove the emphasis from the potty so as to take the pressure off. Then, you have to remove the attention from the fear so that there is no feedback that perpetuates the problem. That means that when you reintroduce the potty in a couple of months, how you approach the issue will be critical.

It’s interesting but a lot of times people betray their emotions through their body language. They approach things that worry them with trepidation yet your child doesn’t understand your trepidation. If they feel it they will react to your insecurity. In other words, if you think there will be a problem, there will be a problem because you will transmit your worry to them. Your little girl sees it as a case of if you are worried then perhaps she should be too and that creates a problem because children need to know you can handle everything and that you are their rock.

So, when you go back to using the potty, don’t make a big deal of it. If she shows fear don’t get caught up in it yourself. Don’t pay the fear any attention, just dismiss it and change the subject and go on to something else. If you try and force her to get over it or hang by the potty offering encouraging words, it will backfire. So when she’s on the potty, don’t focus on her. Find something else to do in the bathroom so she feels reassured by your presence but your attention is not focused on her. Clean out the towel cupboard and sing cheery songs. If she’s successful, offer her modest praise and more than anything else be patient. Don’t worry, she will get over it.

Hope this helps,

You might find our other articles on Potty Training interesting, as well as our personalised charts which do include potty training charts; you never know they might make these training journeys a little bit easier. :-D

For your information, Annie has over 25 years of working with children. More information can be found on her website about her experiences. She trained as a nanny in the UK, and now has clients all over the world.

What are you experiences of children being scared of the potty, do you have any advice yourself as well? Do share with us in the comments below.

Photo credit: / John Kasawa

Anna Lussenburg, commonly known as ‘Annie the Nanny‘ loves her job of solving every kind of young child’s behaviour problem you can think of. Since starting her business in 2004, she has been giving practical advice to families, dealing with everything from temper tantrums, to sleeping issues, to picky eaters and more through her behaviour intervention service, helping turn chaos in to calm. She’s featured in all kinds of media, has a regular TV segment and helps people all over the world through her Skype services and informative website.

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Annie the Nanny

Monday 30th of November 2015

Hi Lena, Thanks for your question. Sorry to hear about your little guy's worries. Here's how I'd approach your problem. While much of what I wrote above applies, just remember that you want to avoid giving too much attention to the behaviour. If you're pleading with him to go to the toilet or getting upset with his need for you to be in the bathroom, that's negative attention. That means you want to be supportive but without adding attention to the mix which will just fuel his fear.

So just go to the bathroom when needed but look as though you have other things to do. Don't pay attention to what he's doing and maybe clean the sink or organize your under sink storage. That way, you are there physically and offering support but not giving him any other positive feedback for his fear.

In the same way, avoid talking to family and friends about his issue in his hearing and make sure you let him know that feeling comfortable on the toilet is just part of growing up. Share with him that you know he'll get there eventually and it's no big deal.

If he won't go at all and refuses point blank, again stay as calm as you can and clean him up without fuss or attention. He's five now so he's a big boy and can understand more complex ideas. If that's the case, you want to attach a logical consequence to going in his pants again whilst staying totally calm. It's hard to go out or have a playdate for instance if you have accidents. It's uncomfortable and embarrassing etc. So, you could phrase it in such a way as you say "you let me know when you can go to the bathroom (with or without mom) and then we'll be able to do those things again." Children are remarkably good at picking out when it's in their best interest to co-operate.

All the best, Annie


Sunday 29th of November 2015

My son is now 5 yrs old. When he was 4 he saw a tv commercial where a toilet grew teeth and chased someone. Since then he refuses to go into the bathroom without mommy. He preferes to go in his pa nts. This is a big problem. Please help.

Franglaise Mummy

Sunday 23rd of March 2014

Great advice - I found potty training to be one of the hardest parts of the early years with our eldest daughter. One thing that did work was having the potty in the living room with a box of books next to it, and we would encourage her to sit on it, fully clothed with a nappy on, to just sit and read, which she loved, and this took away the scariness of the potty. #blogclub

Life With Munchers

Tuesday 18th of March 2014

Couldn't agree more about the modest praise. We went over the top with cheers and our little one just got embarrassed about it.


Tuesday 18th of March 2014

Thank you for this post, and I'm looking forward to the series! I just started my feeble attempts at potty training and could do with any help.

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