An Anxious Parent's Guide to Potty Training

Feeling overly stressed-out about potty training? These tips and tricks can help you stay calm while teaching your child to use the toilet.

Anxious parents preparing to potty train d13/Shutterstock
As someone who suffers from anxiety, the thought of potty training my child has always made me a bit nervous. So, when my partner and I decided it was time to teach our 27-month-old son how to use the toilet, I needed to mentally prepare for the task. I reminded myself—repeatedly—that accidents happen and training to do anything takes time. "We can do it, just stay strong," I told myself as we prepared to ditch the diapers and start the potty training process over a long weekend. "We can't give up, no matter how bad it gets." 

The problem with anxiety is that it grows, usually from a small, often illogical seed of doubt. An idea festers, takes over your brain, and turns things into a monster of a problem. When you're dealing with a toddler who seems to know what you're talking about yet does the exact opposite (say, peeing right next to the little potty instead of inside it), you can start to feel like something is wrong with you.

Our first day of potty training wasn't great, but that was to be expected. By the end of it we were exhausted but still hopeful for a breakthrough. Friday came and went with lots of accidents and no victories. By Saturday, my anxiety over the whole process had reached full-throttle. In between bouts of crying (because I felt like the worst parent ever for making him go through this), I cleaned up pee and watched for a sign that our son was getting it.

By day four—the end of our long weekend—I couldn't do anything but try to keep my anxious brain calm. I took a long bath and tried to decompress. 

Still, I was distraught. "He'll never get it," I cried to my partner. "We wasted a lovely holiday weekend and our son will wear diapers forever." He assured me it was okay and that eventually our kid would understand. But anxiety doesn't do well with the unknown; I needed to know when. Unfortunately that's not how raising a toddler works.

Then, lo and behold, we watched as our son suddenly stopped playing with his trains, walked over to his potty, and peed. It was like a light bulb went on in his head and suddenly he understood. My anxiety melted...slightly.

While learning to use the potty continues to be an ongoing process for our boy, I look back on those moments of real and crushing anxiety and wonder why was I so worried he couldn't do it. It's hard to explain; hard to understand. But if you're feeling the same way—stressed beyond belief that you'll fail at potty-training your child, the following expert tips can help.

Make (and stick to) a solid plan

Since chaos can make an anxious person even more on edge, deciding how you want to potty train before you start is key in helping everyone stay calm. Start the process by reading books or articles and picking the method you want to follow—keeping in mind, of course, that there’s no one “right” approach. We used the "naked weekend" approach where you clear your calendar and spend several days letting your kid run around in the buff with the potty at center stage. "If the parent is doing it with a sense of urgency, stress, or uncertainty, then even the most ready child will pick up on that anxiety and stress," says Maria Darcy, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Newport Beach, California, and the creator of PoGO's Positive Potty Training System. "The most important thing is to be confidently prepared and flexible."

Don't compare experiences

Potty training "is not a measure of your parenting—and that's key to remember," says Jamie Glowacki, author of Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right. "So many people view potty training success as proof of their good parenting, so I try to have moms take that off the board." What worked for your BFF's child, or for the fellow moms in your parenting group, may not work for your kid. On that note, consider avoiding the topic on social media while you're in the potty-training process. It's much easier to get in tune with your child—and your own parenting—if you aren't constantly listening to a chorus of well-meaning (or not) folks commenting on everything from your timing to your method.

Take a break

Learn to recognize the signs that a break is in order before you start having a meltdown. While it's important to be watching and encouraging your child to use the potty, sometimes you need to step away and hand the reins to someone else. Whether it's for a 5-minute meditation or a snack break, do something that will help you regroup and give you energy to get back to the training. Both you and your child will be stronger for it.

Learn to breathe

"I tell parents to take a breath on their words," says Glowacki. "It calms everything down and makes you speak slower so you don't get shrill and high-pitched when talking to your child." She also suggests downloading a breathing and meditation app on your phone. Focused breathing can ease anxiety and let you calmly question what's going on in your own mind and your child's.

Step-by-Step Guide to Potty Training

Get a support system

If you can tag team potty training with your partner, everyone will be happier—and you'll both be able to take needed breaks. You can also lean on a good friend, but be wary of chatting up too many people while you're potty training (see above!). Another source of support can be found in training materials, like a book, that support the potty training method you're using. "In your moments of doubt [read] about what to do when you don't think your child is ever going to learn," says Dr. Darcy. "It can normalize the anxiety and fear. Probably the most important thing to do at this time is just breathe."

Have faith in your kid

If you believe your child can achieve this fundamental yet difficult step, then confidence will shine through the long, messy days as you wait for your kid to get it. In turn, this faith will also help lower anxiety and keep you strong through the process.