Dealing with children’s fear of using public restrooms can be stressful. Discover the 7 ways to ease the anxiety when your child is scared of restrooms.
“No!” my three-year-old shrieked as I tried to get him to use the restroom at the bowling alley. We had been enjoying ourselves at my niece’s birthday party when he said he had to pee. Except I couldn’t even convince him to enter the restroom, much less sit and use the potty.
I didn’t blame him. The echoes of the restroom, people he didn’t know, loud flushes and whooshing air hand dryers didn’t make the restroom all that inviting.
Still, I thought he’d been doing so well with potty training. Now that he was out of diapers, using public restrooms was our only options during outings. He even refused to use other people’s bathrooms in their own homes.
Our only options became either rushing home in time to use our bathroom, or cleaning up after a messy accident.
When your child is scared of restrooms
I wondered when—and how—we were going to help him overcome his fear of using public restrooms.
Through trial and error and plenty of accidents, I found 7 tips that help when your child is scared of restrooms:
1. Respect his emotions and don’t dismiss his fear
Your child’s emotions are real to her, no matter how silly or incomprehensible they may seem to you.
While you and I have had plenty of experience and knowledge over the years, our little ones do not. A public restroom that looks nothing like the one you have at home could scare a child who has never used one.
When she starts feeling scared, acknowledge her feelings and empathize with her: “You seem scared of the restroom. I don’t blame you—it’s loud and crowded in here, isn’t it? And it doesn’t look like our bathroom at home.”
Encourage her to give it a try, but if she refuses, don’t push it. Even though you know nothing bad will happen, don’t force her to do something scary to her.
2. Start with child-friendly public restrooms
Disgusting toilets, loud flushing, crowded with people… Some restrooms are just made for disaster. Try instead to use restrooms that your child might have an easier time to use.
When I was pregnant with twins, I made many trips to the doctor’s office. They happened to have single-room restrooms that looked like someone’s home bathroom. My three-year-old saw the room and agreed to pee in it because it felt less intimidating and more comfortable.
Use restrooms without automatic toilet flushers or hand dryers. Both of these emit loud and startling noises that might scare your child. Empty restrooms work best so she doesn’t worry about other people around her.
3. Continue suggesting public restrooms
Your child may feel scared to use the public restroom at the mall. But don’t let that stop you from offering to use it or even walking by it the next time you’re back.Avoiding the restrooms only confirms her fears that these places aren’t safe or pleasant.
Instead, give her opportunities to overcome her fears. This doesn’t mean pushing her to use restrooms all the time or even expecting that she’ll get over it soon, but offer it as an option the next time you go. You’re reassuring her that it’s a safe place.
4. Explain the consequences without adding blame
Let’s say you’re with your child at the park and she says she wants to use the potty at home instead. Explain that that means having to cut her playtime at the park short.
Let her know that one of the benefits of using public restrooms is you don’t have to stop playing or leave a place. They’re there so she can pee or poop and come right back to play.
At the same time, don’t blame her for leaving. Just say it’s her choice to leave, but that other options—such as public restrooms—can help.
5. Take your pre-potty training child to public restrooms
One of my regrets about public restrooms is that I hardly took my son with me to use them. Sure, that’s where we’d go whenever he needed a diaper change, but I wish I had taken him when I needed to use it.
I would’ve been able to show him the different features of the restrooms in a positive way. Things like the paper towels, automatic faucets and the many stalls. Maybe restrooms wouldn’t have been so scary if he’d been in there more often.
When the time came for him to use it, public restrooms wouldn’t have seemed so foreign. And he would’ve seen me using it and feel reassured that this place isn’t anything to feel scared of.
6. Don’t make a big deal out of it
Treat public restrooms matter-of-fact so she doesn’t feel like pressured to put on a show. It’s something that you and plenty of other people do.
We sometimes make a bigger deal of it, which only worsens the situation. We regale the positive aspects of restrooms that our kids wonder why we’re acting strange. Other times, we get upset at their refusal to go.
Making a big deal only makes public restrooms seem more mysterious or scary than they really are.
7. Praise for every step forward
Rather than berating my son for crying because he didn’t want to use the toilet, I praised him. “You stayed in there for a full 20 seconds! I know you felt scared, but you stayed for all that time.”
He may not have used the restroom, but sometimes it takes little steps, even if it’s walking into the restroom or pulling the paper towels. And of course, when your child actually sits on the toilet, offer plenty of praise as well.
Dealing with a child’s anxieties with restrooms is a challenge for even the most patient of moms. Outings become difficult and accidents more likely to happen. It’s especially confusing when kids have been using the potty at home routinely.
Help your child conquer her anxiety by respecting her emotions and acknowledging her fears. Introduce her to restrooms by starting with child-friendly ones like those that look like private bathrooms.
Explain the consequences of not using the restroom without adding blame, such as having to cut your park outing short to go home, so she knows there are consequences. Don’t make a big deal out of it—added pressure won’t help her eventually use restrooms.
And praise her for every step of progress made, from as small as entering a public restroom to finally using one.
Even if it seems like that day will never come, your child will master public restrooms at some point. After all, I don’t know many 30-year-olds with a fear of using public restrooms in the way toddlers might.
Keep that in mind when you feel frustrated or impatient with your child’s fears. She’ll eventually use public restrooms—yes, even the loud, stinky, crowded ones at the bowling alley.
Get more tips:
- 8 Simple Ways to Prepare for Potty Training
- How to Potty Train a Toddler in 3 Days
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
- Do You Know What to Do when Your Child Acts Out in Public?
- How to Respond to Your Toddler’s Poop Anxiety
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