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Dealing with potty training regressions

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

More than just an "oops"

It's the rare child who doesn't go through childhood without an issue or two. Child development may be a mostly linear path, but there usually are some bumps along the way. Sometimes, those bumps are actually regressions in behavior or ability, and knowing how to handle them can be hard.

Little girl on toliet

One area in which kids tend to regress - -- a little or a lot - -- is in potty training. Your child, who has been using the toilet consistently for weeks, months or even years, may start to have toilet troubles again. The source of such regressions can be any number of physical or psychological issues, and they likely will require your patience to sort out. That can be hard when the result of a regression is just plain yucky.

Embarrassment and reassurance

First of all, when a toilet regression happens, you child needs reassurance, not punishment. Your child may be very embarrassed by the accident, and punishment does nothing to get to the source of the issue. It may even make the regression worse!

Reassure your child that accidents happen,  hold your nose and just clean up the mess.

Check the plumbing

First things first: Try to discern if there is a physical cause for the regression. Urinary infections, constipation and diarrhea are all physical things that can be treated -- and your child didn't get a UTI or a gastrointestinal disturbance on purpose! Your child probably had some real physical discomfort that was part of the regression; address the physical issue and the problem may be solved.

If, however, the issue is recurrent, have your child checked out by his pediatrician, and maybe even a pediatric gastroenterologist. Make sure he has a clean bill of health.

If, after considering the medical angle, the issue still exists, it's time to look at emotional triggers.

Consider changes

Consider any big, recent changes in your child's life -- at home, at school, at the playground. Is anything else causing stress? Talk to the other people in your child's life, and ask if anything unusual has happened. If there has been an incident or event recently, regressing with the toilet may be your child's subconscious way of dealing with it: If she can't use the toilet, then she has to stay close to you, safe.

Children are illogical creatures, and even things we think of as "nothing" are big to them. Again, this is where reassurance comes into play. Reassuring your child that you will figure this out together and not dismissing her fears, hurts or concerns can go a long way in resolving the issue quickly.

Many kids regress when a sibling is born. Maybe the child is feeling displaced; using a diaper instead of a toilet means he can be your baby again, though that may not be a conscious thought. Taking time to acknowledge the feelings and finding unique, bigger-kid ways to be together can help take the edge off of such a transition.

Back to basics

When toilet regressions occur, you may have to go back to potty training basics -- regular, consistent "trying" intervals, reminders, incentives and the like. Stay consistent and positive. This time around, the process may be much, much shorter, but you still need to get back to that consistency, for your child's (and your) sake.

Keep your cool

Most important in any regression is to keep your cool. Getting angry or punishing your child doesn't make either of you feel better, and may make things worse. Regressions happen, and if you take them with a grain of salt (yes, even with the sometimes nasty cleanups), you can get through them and get back on that linear development track.?

More on potty training issues & regressions

Regression help: Potty training, separation anxiety, tantrums and moreSiblings and bringing a new baby homeYour toughest potty training challenges -- solved!

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