The Psychology Behind Potty Training

It’s the time that you have been avoiding for months. Your child is clearly ready, they vocalize “poop” and “pee.” And you just keep thinking, “I don’t have the time for this.” And guess what, I totally get it. Potty training seems like a huge skill to tackle and, unfortunately, it often does take time, effort and consistency from parents to teach our little loves how to use that really scary thing in the bathroom. But what is the overall importance of potty training? Is it simply that you can stop buying diapers and pull-ups? Or is there more to it?

Of course there is! Your child can learn how to be self-sufficient, communicate their needs and learn adaptive developmental skills (ADLs).

Psychosocial Developmental Theory and Potty Training

Erik Erikson is the founder of the Psychosocial Theory of Development that consists of 8 stages. In the second stage of development Erikson notes that successful potty training is important to mastering Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt. If the stage is not successful, and the struggle is not overcome, Erikson suggests that the child can experience psychological challenges and increased negative behavior.

If a child is successful with potty training, they develop a sense of will. If the child does not master this skill or has difficulty mastering the skill, they may feel shame and doubt. You might not think that delaying potty training or not being successful with toileting can have such a big impact on children, but Erikson predicts that the child may:

  • Have decreased or low self-esteem
  • Be overly dependent on adults and caregivers
  • Have lingering doubts about achieving goals or even simple tasks
  • Be insecure in a variety of personal ways
  • Engage in negative self-talk

Learning and Behavioral Approach to Potty Training

Behavioral Scientists believe that all behavior can be shaped and manipulated or changed by changes in a surrounding environment. Changing the environment in which your child engages in toileting can promote successful potty training.

Keep in mind that the environment includes all items and materials surrounding the event of potty training such as clothing like underwear/pull-ups, bathroom materials and reward for potty training items such as books and toys. For example, focusing on how to get your child to relax on the potty might not be the issue if they feel they are too busy to use the bathroom in the first place.

The uniqueness of each individual child makes mastering the bathroom environment more or less complex, but it’s always helpful to consider the following:

  • Ask your child what special reward the would like for potty training successfully.
  • Consider what types of underwear will be most successful for your child.
  • Consider visual reminders that you can put on walls or within arm's reach of your child to remind them of using the potty.
  • Consider the type of stool, training toilet or toilet cushion will be most successful for your individual child.

How can I be successful at potty training my child?

Avoid potty training resistance by allowing your child to take the lead and give them autonomy! Allow them to initiate all trips to the toilet and allow them to vocalize to you that they are ready to sit on the toilet.

This also means giving them as much or as little time as they would like when they are in the bathroom. You want this to be a positive experience and limit negative experiences. Although it is super easy for us all to fall into the frustration of accidents, keep a neutral voice and encourage your child. Scolding, yelling or even raising your voice during accidents can foster feelings of shame and doubt in your child.

If potty training still seems overwhelming, you’re experiencing potty training regression or your toddler is resisting potty training, Just Parent offers individualized help to address your parenting concerns and specific situation when it comes to potty training. We have all of the proven methods and experience with children of all abilities so that we can give you a fool proof plan so that you can Just Parent.

Nicole Williams, M.S. BCBA

Nicole is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Adjunct Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University