Q: My 31-month-old has been out of diapers for at least 8 months during the day. She has been very good with toilet training until recently. Now she goes for a while without accidents and then a period of a week or so with at least one accident a day. I can see she needs to go, but when I ask her she says no. At this point, if I try to get her to go, she begins screaming and crying and resisting. If I'm able to get her to the bathroom, she wets herself as I'm taking off her pants. I can't help but get angry with her because I have tried to prevent the accident. She seems to be going backward with toileting. How do you suggest I deal with this?
A: There are three obvious problems here: First, you are asking her if she needs to use the toilet when she obviously needs to use the toilet. That question is provoking a negative response and things begin to cascade from there. Many of today's parents, I notice, have a habit of asking a question when they want a child to do something. "How about let's pick up these toys now, okay?" actually means "I want you to pick up these toys now." If that's what the parent actually means, then that is what the parent should say. The question, because it implies that the child has a choice in the matter, is likely to result in push-back. Why would a child say he wants to pick up his toys if he has a say in the matter?
The same is true of "Do you have to use the potty?" What you actually mean is "It's time for you to use the potty." Therefore, that is what you should say. Or, you can simply walk over to her, take her hand, say "Come with me" and take her to the potty. Or -- and this is my preferred recommendation -- you simply say, "You need to use the potty" and walk away. This approach would begin to defuse the power struggle you've created concerning this issue.
The second problem is that you have to remove her clothing for her. A child who is having accidents (more accurately called "on-purposes") during the day should be wearing clothes she can remove without your help, and the fewer articles of clothing your daughter has to remove or pull down, the better. Make this as simple as possible for her.
The third problem is your anger, which is fueling the power struggle and contributing to the downward spiral that you and your daughter are caught up in. You need some anger management, so here goes: When she has an "accident," tell her that her doctor says she has to remain in the bathroom until she uses the potty correctly. Give her a cup full of water to hasten the process. Assigning the authority in the situation to a third party whose authority is already accepted by the child is a very strategic way of defusing a parent-child power struggle and getting things back on track.
John Rosemond, a family psychologist, answers parents' questions at rosemond.com.