3.5 year old struggling with toilet training

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Bronwyn asks:  Genevieve, I'm at my wits end.  My 3.5 year old has decided to just keep wetting her pants.  She says she's too busy to go to the toilet and just takes her pants off to continue playing. She's not experiencing any negative consequence for wetting herself so she just doesn't care. We ask her regularly and she says no she doesn't want to go and then promptly wets herself.

If I threatened her with nappies (which I haven't) she'd probably be okay with that because she knows she could keep playing without worrying about the toilet.   She only ever asks to go to the toilet when it's poo.  I guess it's just my frustration around her choosing consciously to go in her pants. She knows she won't get in trouble and can just go and get another pair of pants.  She knows she's supposed to use the toilet.  She'll ask to be taken to the toilet for wee if we're out and about but at home she just doesn't care.  I'm over the washing and wet patches on my carpet. What am I missing?

Genevieve's response:

Bronwyn, I hear and get how frustrating this is!  The most important goal (and probably the hardest thing to achieve!) is to prevent the build up of stress that she might come to associate with using the toilet.  Easier said than done I know! That means working hard to maintain a happy go lucky positive attitude even though inside you're stressing about the carpet understandably!  It's great that she's letting you know she needs to use the loo to do her poos and when she's out and about.  You can be confident that she's going in the right direction and that wearing pull ups at home sometimes won't take her backwards.  As hard as it can be, try to avoid comparing her progress with other kids as we parents can drive ourselves nuts when we do that (not saying that you do of course!).

When my daughter was going through the transition, it worked very well to ask her on a particular morning if she wanted to wear undies or a pull up on that day.  That conversation seemed to help her both have more autonomy around it as well as increasing her awareness.  She nearly always chose undies, but sometimes she chose the pull ups and I could mostly see that they were the days when she had a bit less energy, hadn't slept as well, was fighting a cold, had been out and about too much or whatever.

Once again, the big challenge is to avoid getting into a power struggle because that's when children can disconnect from their instincts and the stress response kicks in.

This isn't where you're at, but just for insight I'll share with you that I've had quite a few parents over the years who have contacted me seeking help because very big difficulties had arisen around toileting.  Often there had been an ongoing battle with a huge amount of conflict for quite a long time.  Sometimes, the child would run and hide behind the curtains or in the wardrobe and poo in their undies.  Or in very extreme cases, the child would deliberately poo on the floor of their room and then smear the poo.  And sometimes the battles have gone on for years.  In every case (so far at least) I've been able to help the parents to turn the issue around and the strategies always always involve taking the charge and the conflicts out of the subject, bringing in more connection, more laughter (that's a biggie!), more lightness.  Children can get stuck when a certain habit becomes associated with the parent becoming exasperated and the child gets stuck in the pattern of going straight into the stress response, they lose access to their higher thinking brain and their natural instincts can become thwarted.

Your situation is much more in the normal struggles relating to toileting at this age and stage.  I'm hoping that in sharing something about the process of positive change in situations where the child has become very much stuck and the natural development has been thwarted that it will help you feel confident that your child's development will continue in a positive direction if you can work hard to maintain a very positive and light atmosphere around it.

 I know it can be so hard to maintain patience on a busy day when it's another job to deal with!  She just doesn't yet have enough theory of mind to really to get the consequences for you of dealing with the carpet, the whole thing isn't calibrated enough for her and I'll bet it's all very hard work still.  We can forget or lose touch with what big work it is for little ones changing their habits when we've long since mastered the art!

As hard as it is to maintain, the perspective of assuming that our child is doing their best really does help us to stay in our adult and to take responsibility for our frustration.  When that frustration starts seeping out, sadly we tend to make the situation much worse because we put our child into the stress response which disconnects them from those healthy instincts (to listen to their body re toilet, food, sleep etc etc).

 During a counselling training, I studied some of the great minds who have contributed to theories of child and human development.  One that comes to mind often around these developmental tasks for the child is the theory of Erik Erikson, a German psychoanalyst who was one of the first to consider the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood.  According to Erikson’s theory, every person must pass through a series of eight interrelated stages over the entire life cycle.  He talked about how the child is facing an inner battle, or challenge, in the two stages of development between 1.8 and 5 years whereby their attempting to develop their will and then the drive of purpose versus the feelings of shame and guilt.  There's a certain amount of guilt and shame that's unavoidable, but when there's too much of it, it can have a debilitating impact slowing down natural development.  Like all things in relationships, it's about aiming to get that healthy balance.  We're not and can't be perfect and always respond in a way that meets the child's needs, yet we need to keep being mindful of maintaining our child's dignity and sensitivity despite the frustrations that any day can present.

Bronwyn responded:  Gah crap you're right Genevieve (of course). I forgot to remember she's doing her best. Thanks for the reminder. I'll own my frustration. Thanks again.

 Genevieve responses:  I hear your frustration Bron!! So hard hey!!

This is a great little clip to help us remember that she just doesn't have enough wiring in the brain yet to get all those connections that we can't help but desperately want them to get - including empathy and consideration of sister's or parent's perspective;


This is a great little clip to help us remember that she just doesn't have enough wiring in the brain yet to get all those connections that we can't help but desperately want them to get - including empathy and consideration of sister's or parent's perspective;


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  1. Sandy says:

    I am struggling with not having any help from my children’s father we live together but he undermines my authority. He does not hold our 3yr old accountable for any of his actions their are no consequences . He will give our son whatever he wants just to shut him up…candy, freezy pops let him watch whatever he wants on youtube. He will let him play Xbox for hours when I’m at work. My son has learned from his father that if he badgers someone he can get what ever he wants or do whatever he wants. NOT with me. For the most part though he really is a good boy. But it’s getting difficult to gentle parent. He doesnt seem to take gentle tone or talking seriously. And then it seems i have to raise my voice and then he listens and I hate that. Is it possible gentle parenting just won’t work in some cases….idk I’m really trying to figure this out. When I was growing up it was never like this but then again my parents worked well together so I’m sure that’s my 1st biggest mistake… but I can’t change that now 🙁

    • Sandy, it’s very difficult when both parents are not on the same page, difficult for each of the parents and the child, it can create so much tension, which the child picks up on, which adds to the challenges. When his father falls into permissive parenting, it DOES make it harder for you and he will understandably push the boundaries harder because he’s learned that when he’s upset, his dad “makes him feel better” by giving him what he wants. But there’s a big difference between what a child wants and what they need. Your gentle parenting efforts will definitely pay off more and more over time. As you say, he’s a really good kid overall. He’s at an age where he WILL get upset at times when he can’t have what he wants, he doesn’t yet have that impulse control developed, it’s hard work for him. But every time you can stay calm and centred and keep a positive connection with him while holding the limit, you’re helping him learn that he can cope with not having his desires met, he can survive all that upset and frustration. You’re the one who has to hold strong while he’s upset but he will be drawing on that strength and love and inch by inch he’ll be internalizing all that and developing his ability to regulate his own emotions, and hence he’ll get better at bouncing back.

      I recommend reading “setting limits can bring healing tears” And also And hopefully they’ll help.

      As for your partner, I think a good article for both of you to read and that touches on the permissive parenting is this one; when peaceful parenting isn’t working , what’s missing? It should be in the list of articles from the home page, or search for it. Hang in there. As you say, it’s very different from your parents because they weren’t parenting as differently from each other. But trust that all your hard work will pay off over time and the benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages of your partner not being able to hold limits. Will your partner read articles? It would be great if he could read that one on setting limits. There’s a few on the topic here on my site. Keep up the great work mama, hugs!

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