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How to Potty Train a Difficult Child at Age 4

by Jennie Dalcour

Although most children start showing signs of toilet training readiness at 18 to 24 months, some children won’t use the toilet until they are 4 to 5 years old. Children with behavioral issues or special needs may be especially difficult to train. Take a deep breath, try to stay positive and be consistent in your approach to potty training. With persistence and patience even the most challenging children will have success.

Determine why your child is having difficulties with potty training. Is he physically unable to use the toilet? Is he afraid of the toilet? Is he locked in a power struggle with you, or is it something entirely different? Children with developmental or behavioral problems often struggle to use the toilet on a regular basis, according to HealthyChildren.org.

Evaluate your bathroom for kid-friendliness. If your child is afraid of the toilet, provide him with a potty chair. If you have a child with sensory issues, make sure the smell of your cleaning products and the brightness of the lights aren’t irritating him. Consider hanging a colorful poster of your child’s favorite cartoon character near the toilet.

Provide motivation and rewards. Sometimes, children don't potty train because they just don’t care. Your child may need a reward chart where he can add stickers every time he uses the toilet. After 5 stickers, let him pick a prize -- and let him choose from things he would really enjoy. An incentive for one child might be a trip to the movies, while getting a new picture book might work for another.

Offer choices. Preschoolers like to do things independently, so give your child the opportunity to make some decisions when it comes to potty training. Encourage her to choose her own underwear. Let her decide whether she wants to use the toilet or a potty chair. Also encourage her to let you know when she needs to sit on the potty.

Allow your child to continue using his diaper, but instruct him to go into the bathroom when he eliminates. This way, he’ll get accustomed to going potty in the bathroom even if it’s not quite on the toilet. After he becomes comfortable in the bathroom, have him sit on the potty or toilet with his diaper still on him. Eventually, have him remove the diaper to use the potty.

Mention the names of his friends or preschool classmates that use the toilet. Children’s social awareness grows during the preschool years -- and you can use this new development to your potty training advantage. Ask your child if he wants to go potty “Just like little Johnnie at school.”

Avoid engaging in negotiations or a battle of the wills with your 4-year-old. Preschoolers are very verbal and might try to “win” bigger rewards or fabricate excuses. Use his new-found verbal skills to explain how his body works and how important using the potty is. Remain consistent with toilet training despite your child's complaints.

React positively to toilet training. Stay with your child and read books or tell stories to her while she sits on the potty. Let her know that this is an exciting part of growing up.

Items you will need
  • Potty chair (optional)
  • Sticker Chart
  • Stickers
  • Prizes

Tip

  • Toilet training is more challenging during times of change in your child’s life. Try to avoid training during a move, divorce or other upheaval. Offer plenty of encouragement and praise when your child exerts any effort to toilet train.

Warning

  • Never punish or try to shame your child if she has accidents or refuses to use the potty. Such negative reinforcement may further delay her potty training progress. If all attempts have failed, call your child’s doctor to check whether she has a physical issue that is impeding toilet training.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images