Remind yourself that this isn’t about you.
As frustrating as it may be to handle the inconvenience of a toddler frightened by a seemingly innocent public bathroom may be, I had to remind myself that this isn’t personal. He isn’t objecting to defy, disobey or make our day worse. This is all about the kids’ emotions. I felt disappointed, yes, but tried to focus on him and the goal to help him overcome his fears.
Find something—however small—your child did that you can praise.
We recently visited the library when I mentioned that I wanted to use the bathroom. Again, the minute I opened the door, he wanted out. And honestly, I was a bit peeved, and perhaps he was afraid of that, or ashamed that he had done something wrong, or that he had failed.
So imagine his surprise when, on our way out to the car, I said, “I’m so proud of you.” I continued, “Even though you were afraid to go into the bathroom, you stayed in there for a full 20 seconds!” He stopped crying and repeated the words back to me, as if realizing that maybe what he did wasn’t bad, but was actually a little bit of progress towards something. I went on: “Maybe next time we visit a public bathroom, we can try to stay for 25 seconds.” And guess what—the next day we went to the park’s bathroom where, despite resisting and not even using the toilet, he eventually calmed down and gave it a go, staying for longer than 25 seconds.
Discuss his emotions.
Using words and labels to discuss his feelings can be a great opportunity for him to identify the very real and strong emotions swirling about him. When he’s ready and calm, talk to your kid about the potential feelings he may have felt: scared, afraid, not sure, surprised, caught off-guard, and such. That way he knows that these feelings aren’t abnormal and that there are even names for them.
When you’ve been using public bathrooms for decades, it’s difficult to imagine just how scary it can be from a toddler’s point of view. Instead, place yourself in his shoes and empathize with what he may be feeling: “I don’t like public bathrooms myself all that much. They can be loud, there are lots of people, and sometimes they’re even smelly and dirty!” When your child sees that you’re on his side, he’s likely to see you as a partner in crime that’s here to help.
Continue to gradually introduce his fears to him.
Just because my kid can get scared of huge waves at the beach doesn’t mean that I’ll never take him to the beach again. Instead, we continue going and introduce the waves little by little, just as we did with the sand. This may require a ton of “just sitting there” as he spends a few minutes looking at the sand and the waves before gingerly stretching out his hands to run his fingers through them. He’ll hardly be swimming in the ocean after just one visit, but every little visit and introduction will help him realize that this isn’t a bad place to be.
Always respect his feelings.
Along those lines, he’ll also realize that his parents respect his feelings. We do our best not to brush his emotions aside as petty or inconsequential. Instead, we reassure him that his fears are very real, just as an adult’s fears of public speaking or of a dark alley are quite real as well. So we try not to push him to just get over it, or get upset or impatient when he doesn’t seem to budge. This world can be daunting, and the last thing kids need is a parent who’s upset at them because they’re afraid.
As of this writing, my toddler still hasn’t used a public bathroom, but I suspect that between now and adulthood, he will. It’s just a matter of helping him overcome his fears and respecting his emotions.
What fears do your kids have? How have they overcome these fears?