Dealing with children’s fear of using public restrooms can be stressful. Discover 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 a 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 couldn’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 option during outings. He would even refuse to use other people’s bathrooms in their own homes.
The result? We either had to rush home in time to use our bathroom, or clean up a messy accident.
When your child is scared of restrooms
Just when you thought you were finally done with diapers, having a child scared of public restrooms presents its own challenges.
Your outings are cut short, you can’t exactly carry him into a stall, and your patience is quickly depleted. You’re even pining for the days when he was still in diapers, if only so that he can pee and poop whenever he wanted.
Many exasperated parents have wondered when—and how—their toddlers will overcome the fear of using public restrooms.
While I knew he’d outgrow this phase, I needed to learn how to help him along while being empathetic to his feelings. Through trial and error (and plenty of accidents), I found seven tips that help when your child is scared of restrooms:
1. Start with child-friendly public restrooms
Disgusting toilets, loud flushing, crowds of people… Some restrooms are 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.
Restrooms without automatic toilet flushers or hand dryers are your best bet. Both of these emit loud and startling noises that might scare your child. Empty or single-room restrooms are also ideal so he doesn’t have to worry about other people around him.
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2. Don’t dismiss your child’s emotions
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, follow these tips:
- Remind yourself that this isn’t about you. Don’t take her fear of public restrooms personal. She isn’t objecting to defy, disobey or make your day worse. This is about her emotions. You’re disappointed, yes, but focus on helping her overcome her fear and anxieties.
- Discuss her emotions. Using words and labels to discuss feelings helps her identify the real and strong emotions she has. When she’s ready and calm, talk to her about the potential feelings she may have felt. Was she scared, afraid, not sure, surprised, caught off-guard? She’ll learn that these feelings aren’t unusual and that names exist for them.
- Show empathy. When you’ve been using public restrooms for decades, you forget how scary it can be from a toddler’s view. Instead, place yourself in her shoes and empathize with what she may be feeling: “I don’t like public restrooms, either. They can be loud, lots of people are around, and sometimes they’re even smelly and dirty!” When she sees that you’re on her side, she’s likely to see you as a partner in crime that’s here to help.
- Respect her feelings. Don’t brush her emotions aside as petty or inconsequential. Instead, reassure her that her fears are real, just like an adult’s fears of public speaking or heights. And don’t push her to “get over it,” or get upset or impatient when she doesn’t seem to budge. This world can be daunting, and the last thing she needs is a parent who’s upset at her because she’s afraid.
3. Continue suggesting public restrooms
Your child may feel scared to use public restrooms, but don’t let that stop you from offering to use it or even walking by it the next time you see one. Avoiding 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. In doing so, 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 that she doesn’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. Say it’s her choice to leave, but that other options—like 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.
When you bring your child to public restrooms with you, you can show him the different features in a positive way. Things like the paper towels, automatic faucets and the many stalls. Restrooms may not be so scary if he’s in there more often.
That way, when the time comes for him to use it, public restrooms won’t seem so foreign. He would know that you use it as well 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 your child doesn’t feel 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 highlight restrooms so much 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 are.
7. Praise your child for every step forward
Every little bit of progress helps, even if your child doesn’t outright use public restrooms.
Rather than berating my son for crying because he didn’t want to use the toilet, I found a reason to praise him. “Wow, you stayed inside for a full 20 seconds! You felt scared, but you stayed for all that time.”
He may not have used the restroom—all he may have done was walk into one or pull a paper towel. But highlighting the little steps encourages him to keep going. And of course, when he actually does pee in a 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 are more likely to happen. It’s especially confusing when your child has been using the potty at home.
Help her 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, like having to cut a park outing short go home. Don’t make a big deal about it, either—added pressure won’t help.
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, she’ll master public restrooms at some point. After all, I don’t know many 30-year-olds with a fear of using public restrooms the way toddlers might.
Keep that in mind when you feel frustrated or impatient with her 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
Don’t forget: Join my FREE 5-day email mini course, Peaceful Potty Training now and potty train without frustrating power struggles: