My Kid Refuses to Potty at School


My family is currently weathering a season of big change. This winter will bring a new baby brother or sister for our 3.5-year-old daughter, and she’s three weeks into transitioning from a relaxed in-home daycare to a structured preschool. She’s been attending full-time daycare since she was three months old, so I wasn’t expecting the transition to be too difficult.

Famous last words, right?

New teachers, new friends, new environment—it’s been a lot for her to handle. While she seems to be enjoying the program while she’s there, our daughter has been a bit of an emotional wreck at other times. The meltdowns, tantrums, and exhaustion are to be expected. But I wasn’t expecting a total embargo on peeing at school. She’s been potty trained for almost a full year now, and yet in three weeks at the new school, she has successfully gone on the potty exactly ZERO times. Recently, she has taken to removing all her clothing and peeing on the floor. I’ve written before about constipation struggles, but this challenge came from left field. I can count on one hand the number of pee accidents she’s had since potty training, and now she has at least one every single day.

We’ve tried many approaches to solving this problem. Her teachers have been extremely patient and creative in trying to work through the issue, and my husband and I have brainstormed many strategies that have also failed. Each time we ask her about her aversion to the school potty, she replies, “I don’t like to potty at school, and I’m not going to go potty at school.” No amount of discussion, positive/negative reinforcement, reward, creativity, or flat-out bribery has made a bit of difference. She’s made up her mind.

I’ve never once seen my daughter change her mind about something. She likes a person or she doesn’t. She likes a food or she doesn’t. She likes a place, movie, or piece of clothing, or she will literally never give it a chance, regardless of how many times she is repeatedly exposed to the offending item. So I have not been particularly hopeful about the situation improving.

To be honest, I have little patience for this particular struggle. My daughter’s frequent refusal to potty irritates me more than ANY other behavioral issue. Almost every morning (and often at bedtime), she throws a 15-minute fit about pottying, during which I have to actively restrain the urge to shout: “THIS IS NOT A BIG DEAL! JUST SIT ON THE F#*&ING POTTY AND PEE! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??” Yeah, I’m usually a pretty empathetic parent, but this is the issue that just GETS TO ME.

I know, I know. It’s about control.

I understand it’s about her exerting control over the one thing actually in her power. I get that she’s overwhelmed and feels powerless, and this is her way of expressing her anxiety about the transition. But it’s hard. And when her preschool director commented that she’s never seen a child struggle for this long in 20 years of working in early childhood education, I felt the pit in my stomach spread a bit deeper. I thought to myself, “This must be my fault. What have we done wrong that our kid can’t handle this, when every other kid eventually got over it?” I felt like a failure.

The problem has been completely dominating my daily thoughts. “Is she pottying today? Why hasn’t the teacher responded to the email I sent last night with some new ideas? Should we try this new strategy? Would an even bigger bribe work? I’ll just go Google it for the hundredth time to see if any new articles come up.”

This weekend, my mother-in-law asked my daughter her favorite thing to do at her new school. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Going potty on the floor.” Though steam almost came pouring from my ears and angry thoughts began racing through my mind (“What kind of a messed up response is that?! You talk every day about how much fun you had!”), I knew she was just trying to press my buttons. She knows we are focusing a lot of attention on this issue. I have to be careful how much I react because it’s obvious that getting a reaction from us is part of what’s going on.

Where do we go from here?

At this point, I have to wonder if she’s doing okay. Every day, when she comes home in a different outfit carrying her soiled clothing in a plastic bag, my chest grows tight with guilt. Is this her way of telling us she’s miserable? Should we pull her from the program, even though her teachers report she is otherwise one of the happiest and most social kids in her class? I’ve cried many tears of worry and frustration. Three weeks seems like a long time for this problem to endure without any improvement. I worry the pattern has been cemented. And I worry what it means for her future.

At the advice of her school, I called her doctor today to report the issue and discuss whether she might need to be seen for this problem, or if she should be referred to a child psychologist. I do see many signs of childhood anxiety in my sweet girl, and I wonder if this problem could be related.

Here’s all I know at this point:

  • I don’t need to feel guilty about making the decision to graduate her from daycare. If we didn’t make this transition now, kindergarten would have arrived eventually, and a big change likely would be even more difficult when she’s older.
  • I need to keep my cool. She is picking up on my anxiety about all this, and that doesn’t help. I need to focus on helping her through this transition from a level-headed place.
  • It won’t last forever. She won’t be having accidents by the time she’s going off to college. This is pretty normal kid stuff, and she will eventually get over it.
  • It’s okay for kids to struggle. Her life doesn’t have to be perfect. The rough patches are what build resilience and grit. There will be many problems in her life that I can’t fix for her. Maybe this is just the first signpost on the long road of learning to let go.