There's a miracle moment that comes for most parents in the toddler years: your child is finally potty trained. No more expensive diapers. No more stinky garbage. But then it happens. Your potty trained child starts having accidents, you're wondering: is there something seriously wrong with my child?
Welcome to the stage known as potty training regression. First, some good news. According to family therapist Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, "potty regression can be frustrating and messy, [but] it is a relatively normal part of child development."
So what can you do about it? Here's what the experts advise:
Do evaluate how many accidents they've had: An accident or two may seem like a big deal, but you may be over-thinking things! "Regression involves significant change from one's previously trained toilet pattern," explains Dr. Ashanti Woods, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center. "Regression, in general, refers to the loss of a skill previously attained."
Don't assume your child is regressing: Many times what parents consider "regression" is just a sign that a child wasn't actually trained. This applies to the first few days, weeks, and even months after "training," Hoskins says.
"The late stages of potty training, when occasional accidents are likely to happen, may look like regression to some," she explains. If your child was "potty trained" a month ago and now having accidents, it may just be a sign that you need to work on the basics a little more.
Do consider changes in your child's life. "There is good research to support that stressors can influence a child experiencing regression in his or her toilet training," says Dr. Woods. That can include birth of a new sibling, new environment or home, illness, or social challenges within the family, he explains.
Don't get upset about accidents. "Doing so adds additional stress for the child, which is counter-productive," Hoskins warns.
Do visit your pediatrician: No stressors? "A trip to the pediatrician's office is in order to rule out UTIs, rashes, and constipation," says Hoskins.
Don't be afraid to ask for help: Even if there isn't a physical cause that a pediatrician can address, the emotional one can be tough for parents to handle alone. " For example, if there is a problem in the couple relationship that is causing parents to argue, avoid each other, etc., seeking couples therapy can help create a more harmonious home environment, which will help the child feel less stressed," says Hoskins. "If the child is responding to an illness or death of a family member or other loved one, some work with a grief therapist may be effective in helping the child redirect his or her stress response."
Do show your kids a little sympathy. "Be empathetic, and let your child know that they can come to you for support related to that issue -- and any issue," Hoskins says. If you can't handle them peeing in their undies without freaking out, it sends a message to your kids that they can't come to you with other matters either.
Don't blame the child: Regression happens, Dr. Woods explains. It's not something a child does to "punish" their parents. Kids need Mom and Dad to help them at this time, not blame.
Do make re-training fun: "After explaining the importance of using the toilet at the appropriate time, parents should establish a reward system to get their child back on track," suggests Dr. Woods. His best suggestion? A calendar with a star or sticker system in which the child gets star for each successful bathroom experience.
"After a certain number of stars are obtained, the child may receive a trip to the library, a trip to the park, a dollar store toy, or more time with mommy and daddy -- which is probably the best gift of all," says Dr. Woods.
Don't use aphorisms such as "you're a big boy/girl now, and big boys/girls use the potty.": "Parents who do this often forget to look for stressors that may be making it more difficult for the child to avoid accidents," Hoskins warns. It's not about age; it's about your child's particular struggle.
Do fall back on typical potty training methods: Remember how your not-potty trained child was prone to accidents when they got involved in a long project or if you went on a trip? Looking for triggers, advising kids to "go before we leave," etc., will help a child who has regressed get back on track in the same way that it helped a child learn to use the potty in the first place.
Don't forget to include your child. Asking them for ideas on how to avoid accidents can be key in re-training a child. After all, Hoskins says, it will "help them feel more engaged, excited, and in control of the process."
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