Bathroom Worries

How to help a child who doesn&t

Nov 06, 2012



Does your child resist using the bathrooms at preschool? You'd be surprised how common this problem is! Listen in as a parent and teacher describe what happens — and then I weigh in on how to help.

The Parent's Story

As so often happens, when my 4-year-old son Brian arrived home from preschool this afternoon, he headed straight for the sofa and began to groan. "Not another stomachache!" I thought, wondering if Brian has been eating foods in school that don't agree with him. Our pediatrician had examined him last month and said Brian was fine. I was on the verge of calling the doctor when Brian set off for the bathroom. Emerging with a relaxed smile moments later, he ran off to join a group of neighborhood children gathering in our yard. When they came inside, I happened to overhear my son explain to a friend that he would be back in a minute because he needed to use the bathroom. It's interesting because he said to his friend, "Stay here. Don't follow me. I'll be right back."

I can't help but wonder if Brian's worry about going to the bathroom has something to do with a lack of privacy. I feel a little embarrassed about bringing this matter up, but I know I should speak to his teacher about it.

The Teacher's Story

Brian happily took part in all sorts of morning activities today. During free play, he built a garage with several other boys. I could hear him chattering away with his classmates as they worked together in the block corner. When that project was finished, Brian asked if he could paint. I set up the easel and he got right to work, talking all the while to his painting partner on the opposite side of the easel.

So far, it had been a fine day for Brian. But a short time after lunch, I was dismayed to see him in tears, doubled up on his mat with one of his stomachaches. I asked Brian if he wanted to use the bathroom, but he preferred to just lay there. Come to think of it, he never wants to use the school bathroom. Could this explain his occasional stomachaches?

Dr. Brodkin's Advice

Brian's astute mother and teacher have each uncovered the problem: It's not at all uncommon for a child to avoid using a classroom bathroom because he feels a lack of privacy. He might worry about another child opening the door or fret about taking too much time. Others whose toilet training had been accomplished quite recently are just more comfortable in a familiar bathroom at home. In any case, understanding the origin makes it easier for teachers and parents to help a child.

Brian's family did the right thing by consulting the doctor, since a child who avoids using the bathroom could develop chronic constipation, which could lead to more serious problems. Brian's mom should arrange for a short, quiet time indoors right after he comes home from school where she can reassure Brian by telling him that the teacher has promised that everyone's privacy will be respected during bathroom time. If both the teacher and parent show Brian they understand and respect his wishes, he is likely to follow their advice to take the breaks his body needs.

Once Brian's teacher and his mom have talked and agreed on a plan that will work at school, the teacher can chat with Brian: "You know those tummy aches you've been getting? Well, your mom and I think we have a good way to help stop them. You and I will try to find a special time for you to use the bathroom in school. I'll make sure you have all the privacy you need. Of course, you already know that you can go whenever you need to."

The teacher might also try to notice whenever Brian hasn't used the bathroom for a long while, so she can gently encourage him to go. It might help others, as well, if the teacher monitors the bathroom situation and encourages respect for everyone's privacy.

Top Reasons Children Avoid the School Bathroom

  1. With the hubbub of a busy classroom, some children find it difficult to relax enough — physically and mentally — to use the bathroom.
  2. Kids may be so unwilling to miss the fun of classroom social interaction or outdoor play that they avoid taking the time to use the bathroom.
  3. Occasionally, a child may feel vulnerable "with his pants down" in a place that is not as familiar as home.
  4. If younger children share the bathroom with older ones, they may be intimidated by noisy or rough play around them.
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