How can I help ease my child's anxiety over using public restrooms?
Q: My daughter is 4 yrs 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: Fear is our body’s way of telling us that there is something dangerous out there, so fear can be a very adaptive emotion. Yet sometimes childhood fears can make life difficult for both the child and the parent. Fortunately, there are things that a parent can do to help when a child is scared.
Keep in mind that certain fears are appropriate at certain ages and levels of development. Many fears that children have they will eventually outgrow, and kids tend to go through certain fears at particular ages. Sometimes, a parent just needs to take a “wait and see” approach and allow a child’s natural development to eliminate the fear.
Gradually work on decreasing fears. If a fear is causing great interference in a child’s life or is one that he should have outgrown by his age, a parent can work on gradually decreasing the fear. Try to figure out exactly what a child is scared of – for instance, is it the germs in the bathroom or the loud flushing of the toilet – and start to gradually expose the child to what is making him scared. So, for example, if it is the loudness of the toilet, start by having the child stand outside the bathroom while you flush the toilet, then have him stand in the doorway while you do it, and then one foot closer, and so on, and continue to gradually get him closer and closer to the feared sound.
Work on changing his thoughts Give your child coping thoughts, and practice them with him. If your son likes trucks, for example, you and he can pretend that the flushing sound is really a truck engine. Each time he is able to gradually get closer and closer to the flush, praise him, and let him see that everything went o.k.; when it is time to move one step closer, have him remind himself how everything went o.k. in the past and that it will do so again when he is one step closer. Also, make sure to address any thoughts that are leading to the fear. For example, if a child is scared that if he touches a strange toilet he will get germs and die, teach him the true facts, in addition to the steps that he will need to take to stay healthy (e.g., when to wash, what not to touch, and so on).
Model appropriate coping Keep in mind that a child takes his cues from the parent, so if a parent displays a lot of anxiety and fears, the child can easily learn to act similarly.
And you can take solace in the knowledge that someday your child will be a teen, and then you will never be able to get him out of the bathroom.
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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig