Potty Training Troubleshooting

Potty training regression

We said goodbye to diapers 4 months ago and there have been a few instances where she was consistently having accidents and we couldn’t figure out why. I feel like it’s a mind game and these toddlers are MASTERS.

Here is my most recent example of regression and how Joshua truly is a toddler-potty-training genius.

The scene: Kitchen around 6:30pm. The twins are asleep for the night (they are down by 6pm). Josh and I are feverishly working on cooking dinner because Esther’s bedtime is quickly approaching and we like to have dinner together at the dining room table. It’s a good habit.

Esther is bouncing around from family room to kitchen trying to get us to play with her or carry her around. She is very persistent and we are trying to get her interested in playing solo so we can focus on cooking. Then, Esther stands on the couch or in the kitchen and starts crying because she wet herself. Josh and I drop everything to rush to her and get her cleaned up while minimizing the damage to the couch, carpet, floor, etc.

Accidents happen, but this is consistent and there’s no reason she couldn’t tell us she needs to go potty like every other time. She doesn’t have any accidents with the nanny all day, so why is it happening now? It just didn’t add up.

Back to the scene: while cleaning Esther up, running around to get new clothes, wiping down the couch or mopping up the floor we talk to Esther about telling us she needs to go potty the very second she feels “that feeling.” We tell her how it makes us sad when she doesn’t go peepee in the potty. She nods and clearly understands what we’re telling her, but it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in. We don’t yell at her because it’s just not our style and we don’t want to make her feel bad for having an accident. Still, what the heck is going on?!

Genius Josh deserves a degree in child psych for this realization. When she has accidents it’s when we are not playing with her or giving her the attention she is so desperately trying to get. Once she has an accident, we drop everything and rush to her – she gets LOTS of attention. She was classically conditioning us like Pavlov’s dogs! She pees and we come running. In her mind the problem is solved. I get the attention I want by having an accident and silly us – we were reinforcing this behavior! Josh figured this out and I thought, “You are GENIUS!”

So, what do we do? We have to get ahead of the accident. I bought some special toys/activities for her to play with while we work on dinner (closeout aisle at the supermarket had some princess coloring books for less than $2 – sold!). These toys are only for this time of day. She doesn’t get to play with them any time, so it’s something special. Also, Josh and I take turns working on dinner and switching out who plays with Esther while the other is cooking. Esther just wants our attention. We are not home with her all day, she’s excited to see us at the end of the day, and we must give Miriam and Ilana our attention until they go to bed for the night. Esther is so patient and understanding, she deserves our undivided attention.

Also, if she has an accident, we don’t give it a lot of fanfare. We still go over to her, but we do not go on and on about how accidents happen etc. We clean her up and say peepee goes in the potty. There is minimal talking and no extra attention. After an accident, we are not giving her much more interaction than cleaning her up because we don’t want to reinforce the cause and effect behavior of “Esther has an accident, then mom and dad give me a lot of attention.” She’ll ask to come with us to get her new clothes or bring her soiled clothes to the washer in the basement, but we tell her no and she has to stay put while we clean everything up.

In contrast, we give her a lot of attention when she puts her peepee in the potty. When she tells us she needs to go we help her get on and off the toilet (even though she can do it herself now with a stool), and she gets tons of praise and attention for putting her peepee in the potty. This is the behavior we want to reinforce, so giving her lots of praise (even a song and dance from mama) helps. Telling us she needs to peepee is no longer enough to warrant a lot of praise, we need the peepee in the potty itself before we celebrate.

Since implementing these techniques and lack of response to accidents, she’s been accident free (at least around dinner time)!


My kid refuses to change out of his clothes after an accident, even though he knows how.

I choose my battles. Esther wearing her Belle costume with zebra socks to the family photo shoot is not one of them, but pee pee accidents and potty training regression gets addressed immediately!
I choose my battles. Esther wearing her Belle costume for the family photo shoot is not one of them, but pee pee accidents and potty training regression gets addressed immediately!

We all get trapped in a cycle of telling our kid what they need to do, they don’t, they get punished, and then we end up doing it for them anyway. It’s a terribly unproductive cycle. What else can I do?

I take a step back and look at the power struggle and issues at play. What is the message I’m sending? My kid inevitably learns: Wait long enough, frustrate mommy/daddy enough, and they’ll do what I want. As the mama, I need to learn: be consistent with my message.

If Esther refuses to change out of the wet underwear, I keep her in timeout until she does it. This is a typical scene in my house after Esther has an accident.

Michelle: Esther, I need you to go upstairs and change out of your wet underwear.

Notice I said I need you to, not “want you to” or “could you” or add “OK?” to the end of my request. For some reason children respond to the word need more than anything else. Also, I’m not really giving her a choice, why would I ask her a question I already know the answer to?  I use need in all my conversations where I know what outcome I am looking for. “Could you brush your teeth?” becomes “I need you to brush your teeth.” This is much more straight forward and action-oriented. It’s a small change in language, but a big change in behavior.

Esther: No! I don’t WAAAAAANT to change my underwear.

Michelle: Your underwear has peepee on it, so I need you to go upstairs and get a new pair on. You let me know when you’re ready to change it yourself. <<walk away and don’t give her any more attention – no talking, no eye contact>>

I don’t tell her it’s a time out, but she knows she’s not going to get any attention from me until she’s ready to do it herself.

Esther: <<stands in silence with underwear at her feet, sucking her thumb, and giving me the combo look of being mad, angry, sullen, frustrated>> I only see this out of the corner of my eye because I’m not looking at her.

<<Esther may continue to stand like this for minutes (feels like forever). I’ll continue to go about my day as if nothing is happening. This is actually a great opportunity to do some dishes, tend to a baby, or put laundry away.>>

<<She randomly pops her thumb out of her mouth as if NOTHING has happened, big smile on her face, arms waving>>

Esther: Okay I’m ready!

Michelle: Great job calming down! I’m really proud of you. Now I need you to go on upstairs and change your underwear.

Esther bounds upstairs to get changed and it’s like the episode never happened.

This sort of battle of wills happens at least once a night in our house. It could be over getting a tubby, or even just getting a toy from upstairs. “No, I want YOOOOOOOU to do it!” We tell her no and move on from the subject. The more times we have to tell her no, the more we’re fueling the fire to continue the conversation. So we (try to) say no once and leave it there.

Asking the same question repeatedly and hoping to get a different answer is not helpful. For behavior redirection (aka discipline) I stick with giving time outs because it’s worked every time for us. Esther knows she won’t get our attention until she does what we ask.

Generally, Josh and I feel like she just needs to feel a sense of control around when and how she does something. She’s 3 years old, she doesn’t have much say in her life, and so if she wants to exert a sense of control over the little things, we’re totally cool with it. We don’t care how or when something gets done, as long as it gets done.





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