Care and Feeding

When She Won’t Go

My 4-year-old refuses to go to the bathroom with anyone but me. What can I do?

Photo illustration of a toddler girl on the potty.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Author/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, 11 and 4. My 4-year-old is potty-trained and will use the bathroom when she’s with me, whether we’re at home, the store, a restaurant, etc. However, she refuses to use the bathroom with anyone else, including teachers at preschool and close family members, such as her grandmother.

Three times a week she goes to preschool, where her classmates use the bathroom and don’t wear diapers. The bathroom they use does not offer a lot of privacy—it’s designed for 3- to 4-year-olds with only half a wall so teachers can peek in and see if someone needs help. There are two toilets side by side with only a small divider. My daughter HATES this. She wants complete privacy (which I totally get), but given the way the school bathrooms are constructed, she can’t have it.

The solution so far is that she wears pullups to school and whenever she’s with anyone other than me. We need to get her wearing undies to school within the next year to be ready for kindergarten. The school isn’t renovating the bathrooms. What can we do?

—Privacy Required

Dear PR,

It’s good that you’re attempting to get ready for a new school year with new big-girl panties, but your daughter’s issue seems to be less about the classroom bathroom than it is the absence of her mother when she has to go.

When other people attempt to take her outside of the day care setting, what is her objection? Is it always an issue of privacy? I’d imagine that she isn’t getting too much of that during bathroom trips with you. Have you talked to her about “stranger danger” and good touch versus bad touch? It’s great—ideal, really—if you have, but it also may have created some anxiety about what may happen if someone sees her unclothed or attempts to help her wipe herself.

Find ways to make the ritual of going to public bathrooms as peaceful as possible. Accompany your daughter and her grandma to a local mall or library and go together. Create habits that she and other trusted adults outside of school can practice for when you aren’t there, such as standing in front of the stall with feet visible, having a conversation with your daughter or humming while she handles her business. Teach your kiddo a little song to sing to herself to distract her from feeling anxious while she poops; it could be something as simple as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or an original tune. (“Maddy’s going, Maddy’s going, Maddy’s going—oh yeah!” I’m no composer but kids like my songs, I swear!)

As far as school goes, the teachers should be invested in making sure your daughter is going to the bathroom often enough, even if only to avoid the trouble of having to deal with pullup changes. Inquire about scheduling a time aside from the usual class bathroom trips where she can go enjoy a bit more privacy; perhaps she can go last once everyone else has finished, or simply go on her own earlier or later. Send her to school with flushable wipes so that she’ll have less of a reason to need adult assistance. Go to the bathroom with her in the morning during drop-off so she can get comfortable being in the space. If there’s a small item she can take with her to distract herself—a short book, a comfort blanket or toy, a family photo—see if the school staff will accommodate that.

Finally, talk to your daughter about how important it is that what goes in her body comes out, and in a timely fashion. She doesn’t want to have to deal with any long-term health issues as a result of this, and she’s old enough to be presented with the very real possibility of that happening. Grab a copy of It Hurts When I Poop!, which explains all of that in very kid-friendly terms. Good luck!