Why is my daughter afraid to use public bathrooms?
Q: My daughter is 4 years old and has a real fear of public restrooms. When she realizes that she has to go she will start to cry and scream, making a huge scene. She also will not listen to anything I tell her. I always calmly tell her that mommy won't let anything happen to her, but it's like she can't hear me. Is this a real issue or a phase? How do I help her with this anxiety?
A: With children your daughter's age it can be difficult to know what is a "real issue" and what is a phase. Having said that, if this issue has been going on for more than a few weeks and causes real distress, it is cause for concern. If this is the only issue that she seems to have anxiety about, then it is probably a good idea to take her to a child psychologist/psychotherapist who deals with phobias. Phobias are a very specific type of anxiety and require a different set of interventions than generalized anxiety. As far as immediate action goes, it sounds as though you are on the right track. Whenever possible, do not force her to go to a public restroom if she is having an anxiety attack. Try taking her into some public restrooms when she is not feeling the urge to go to the bathroom and see if she has the same reaction. If this seems to be better for her, then do it as frequently as you can, and hopefully it will help reduce the anxiety when she does have to go. Ultimately, what you say will likely not matter as much as her own experiences (but it is always a good idea to offer comfort and validation). Over time, if she is able to go into public restrooms without it being a traumatic experience, she will have a better chance at overcoming this fear.
Answered by Jeff Palitz, MFT