Why Your Child May Be Having a Hard Time Potty Training

A happy toddler sitting on a potty chair, looking away

Vladimir Godnik / Getty Images

Most children start toilet training between 18 months and 3 years of age. With the pressure for many children to be out of diapers to attend preschool, potty training can be extra stressful for parents, especially when their toddler is resisting learning or just not getting the hang of it. When attempts at potty training don't seem to be working, it can help to understand why.

They're Not Ready

Before the age of 18 months, most toddlers do not have control of urination and defecation to consciously delay it until they can get to the bathroom. If you catch your child at the right time and put them on the toilet, they will use it, but that doesn't mean they are ready to get there in time on their own.

Even older children may have trouble learning to use the toilet for a variety of reasons. Some children are not developmentally ready to learn yet, while others resist attempts to learn as a means of control. Difficulty potty training may also be caused by a medical issue, such as chronic constipation. It's important to make sure that your child shows signs of readiness for toilet training before beginning the process.

In addition to your child being ready physically and mentally, you'll want to make sure the timing is right for your family. If you are in the middle of moving, about to take a vacation, or have a new baby in the house, for example, you may have more success if you wait until household routines are steady again.

They Lack Interest 

Your child shows signs that he is ready to use the toilet, but when it comes time to use it, they seem to have no interest. You can help spark your child’s curiosity about the potty by talking about it throughout the day, watching videos about characters like Elmo or Hello Kitty learning to use the potty, singing songs about the potty, and reading books, such as "The Princess and the Potty," "Potty Superhero," and "Everyone Poops."

They're Afraid of the Toilet

Your child knows when they need to go, but they seem scared of the toilet. This is a common concern among children who may have difficulty balancing on an adult toilet, are afraid to fall in, or are fearful of flushing. You can help your child get over the fear of the adult potty by giving them a chance to become familiar with the toilet without the added pressure to use it.

  • While at home, you can have them practice sitting on the potty first with their clothes on and lid down for a few minutes every day. It may be helpful to read a book with them or let them play a game on a tablet for distraction.
  • Once your child feels steady balancing on a closed toilet, lift the lid and have them sit on the seat with her clothes on for a few minutes a day, then just a diaper.
  • Progress up to having them try sitting on the potty to go. If your child becomes resistant at any point in this process, go back to the previous step. 

Your little one may prefer to start on a separate toddler potty or use a toddler seat over the adult seat with a footstool to help them balance.

If it's flushing that cares your child, it may help to show them how the plumbing works by lifting off the tank lid and letting them flush some clean toilet paper.

They Won’t Use a Public Toilet

Another common fear is public toilets, which are often loud, filled with strangers, and lack the comforts of home, such as a footstool and seat insert. You can help calm your child’s fear by helping them balance on the adult seat and reassure them that you won't let them fall in. You may even consider carrying a portable toilet seat cover with you.

Auto-flush toilets can be especially frightening for kids because the sensors do not always recognize tiny bodies that have difficulty sitting still. To keep the toilet from flushing while your little one is still on it, keep sticky notes in your bag and place one over the sensor while your child uses the toilet to block the signal. Just remove it when they're done.

If your child is sensitive to loud noises, such as the hand dryer, it may help to use noise-blocking headphones. Some establishments offer separate family bathrooms—another good option.

They're Nervous About Accidents 

If toilet training is going great at home, but they have trouble going at daycare or other people’s houses, they may be anxious about communicating their needs to other adults. Help them to practice asking questions like, “Where is the bathroom?” or “I need to use the potty, can you help?” 

As they goes off to school or a friend’s house, remind them to use their words to ask for help as soon as they feel the urge to go, and to be sure they leave themself enough time to get to the bathroom. It may help for them to be shown where the restroom is when they first arrives at a new location. Also, packing a clean change of clothes for them in case they have an accident can also help relieve their anxiety about it.

They Refuse To Train

Potty training can be the ultimate battleground for parents and toddlers. If your child is physically and mentally ready for using the toilet, but stubbornly resists your attempts to train, you may be dealing with a control issue.

There are few domains a toddler can control; eating, sleeping, and toileting are the big three.

If your child refuses to potty train as a means of control, there are a few things you can try. You can diffuse the battle by simply telling your child they are mature enough to use the potty autonomously, give them the tools they need for success, and let them know you are here to help if they need it, but ultimately it is their responsibility. While this may seem counterintuitive, many parents find success with this tactic.

You can also support your toddler's need for control by allowing more choices or the illusion of choice during the day, such as letting them pick between two outfits, choose a television program or book to read, or help create the dinner menu. When your child feels more in command of other aspects of their life, it may lessen their need for control over the potty.

If your efforts to quell a power struggle over using the potty don't seem to be helping, you may want to take a break from toilet training for a time.

Your Training Method Needs Adjusting

If potty training your firstborn seemed a lot easier than your second, you may need to adjust your method. Every child is different, so what works for one doesn't always work for another. One child may respond well to rewards, while your next child runs from reminders to use the potty.

A common problem parents of more than one child can run into is that potty training a boy is different than training a girl. If you successfully trained your daughter, but you are having trouble with your son, this may be at play. Boys tend to train later than girls, can stand instead of sit to pee, and may require a different training seat with a splash guard.

Constipation Is Interfering

Children who experience constipation frequently often have difficulty learning to use the toilet. When bowel movements become hard and difficult to pass, many children become fearful of pooping and hold it in. A child who is constipated and learning to potty train may associate the pain with the toilet and become afraid to sit on it.

How Constipation Interferes With Potty Training

In addition to difficulty passing stool, some children with constipation also have accidents with both pee and poop. Backed-up stool can put pressure on the bladder and kidneys, making it hard for a child to feel the sensation to urinate or causing a sudden urge to go. 

Chronic constipation can also lead to encopresis, a common health complaint in toddlers and young children. This happens when the intestines become clogged with hard stool and soft, liquid stool makes its way around the blockage and leaks out. If your child is having frequent poop accidents where the underwear is streaked, talk to the pediatrician. 

Childhood constipation can be eased by drinking more water and adding more fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet. There are also several over-the-counter medications, such as MiraLAX (polyethylene glycol 3350), that your doctor may recommend.

In addition to bathroom issues, constipation can lead to loss of appetite and feeding problems. While toddler appetites may fluctuate from day to day, if you suspect constipation and your child isn’t eating, consult with a healthcare provider. 

A Word From Verywell

If you break the process of using the bathroom into its many steps, you can see why potty training is such a process for a young child's mind and why it takes time and practice to gain mastery. Plus, there are many issues that determine readiness and can impede successful training.

If you are frustrated that your child is not making progress with potty training, most experts agree that you should take a break and stop toilet training for a time. This will relieve the pressure on a stubborn child or one who isn’t ready yet. You can return to potty training when your child's mind and body are completely ready to take on the task. It will be much less stressful for both of you if you can wait.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Choby BA, George S. Toilet training. Am Fam Physician. 2008;78(9):1059-64.

  2. Boles RE, Roberts MC, Vernberg EM. Treating non-retentive encopresis with rewarded scheduled toilet visits. Behav Anal Pract. 2008;1(2):68-72. doi:10.1007/BF03391730

Additional Reading

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.