Potty Training Regression: The Possible Reasons for a Regression in Toilet Training

Potty Training Regression Question and Answer - The following question was submitted via the parenting question form. My answer appears directly below the question.

My four year old son has a potty training problem with holding his bowel movements in. He holds them and waits so long that he winds up going on himself. He has been potty trained for about a year now and this just started happening in the last three or four months. I am worried that he might injure his bowels if he keeps this up. Any suggestions?

Below are four possibilities for why your child has experienced a potty training regression:

  • If your child has had a painful bowel movement (and we all know how painful and frightening it can be to pass impacted stool), he may be scared of having a similar experience. If you determine that this is what has caused his his potty training regression, talk to him about it. Explain that this experience can be prevented by eating certain foods (lots of leafy greens and fruit) and drinking lots of water which will help to soften stools. Make it clear that holding onto stool when he has to go the bathroom is unhealthy and can cause fecal material to be reabsorbed into his system.

  • Children often regress in their toilet training because something in their lives has changed. Think about the last three or four months and ask yourself if something happened to upset your son. Were there any significant or even minor changes in your life? The event could be as small as a change in schedule.

    Although many parents think a bowel movement is just a bowel movement, your son is holding onto what he should be letting go. Is there anything from that earlier time when his potty training was in place that he may need to hold onto? Again, we're back to the question, "Has something in his life changed?"

  • Another event that could have caused a potty training regression is if your son has been shamed in any way. Going to the bathroom is a natural thing, but some families create shame around it, especially when a child messes his pants. If such an experience has occurred, rather than beating yourself up about it, work to help your child heal his feelings. (Let this be a reminder to all parents: when you use shame to "teach a lesson," you teach nothing but self-loathing.)

    This calls to mind an incident that happened about four years ago when a boy and his brother came for a play date at our house. The boys were playing in the bedroom while I was making them lunch. When I went to tell them their snack was ready, one of the boys could not be found. I called him and called him and looked all over the house. With a stab of fear, I thought of our new backyard pond. After much frantic searching, I found him—he was hiding between the toilet and the pony wall in my children's bathroom. I could not see him from the bathroom door and hadn't thought to look in that tiny space. He was hiding because he had messed his pants. Obviously, he had been shamed before and was terrified. It wasn't just embarrassment that kept him from answering my calls, it was a deep, abiding shame. Realizing this, I gave him a hug and told him that it was okay. I assured him that all of us have accidents. I told him that together, we would clean up the mess. Then I helped him out of his pants and into the bath. That boy and I shared a special bond that day. When I talked to his mother later, she told me that he had recently experienced a potty training regression and this was one of many incidents. Not knowing if she was the one who had shamed in the past, I explained how I treated her son to give her a model for future incidents.

  • Another tip when your child has experienced a potty training regression is to just ask him what happened. Ask gently why he didn't go to the toilet when he felt the need. When a child holds onto stool, it can become impacted which makes it harder to go and can rupture the tender tissues in that area.

  • When a child experiences a potty training regression, return to the fundamentals. Ask your child to tell you when he feels the need to go the toilet and sit with him in the bathroom until he does. Make this a relaxing time by reading a book, singing a song or talking, so he can take the time he needs to let go naturally. If he finds he just has gas, then get up and start anew when he feels the need again. By creating a positive experience around his potty training, you'll overcome negative experiences from the past.

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    About the author:
    Laura Ramirez is the author of Keepers of the Children: Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting . This award-winning book is the only book that combines ancient native ideas (such as child stewardship) with heart-centered psychology to teach parents how to raise children to develop their strengths and unfold their spiritual nature. This book turns parenting into a journey of self-discovery for child and parent.

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