5 Public Potty Pointers: How to help kids overcome public toilet phobias

“Go” Before You Go

If you have a recently potty trained child, you can probably relate to the following scenario: You have your three-year-old use the potty twice before you leave the house. You get to the grocery store. Your cart is loaded. Suddenly your daughter looks at you, grabbing at her pants uncomfortably before announcing (loudly and in the canned food section where it echoes), “I’ve got to pee, Mommy. Now.” You look around for the nearest bathroom—even track down a store clerk to find it. You abandon your overflowing cart, race your child into the bathroom, and fling open the stall, only to have her say, “I don’t like that potty, Mommy.”

I’ve been there with each of my three children. You think that your potty training days are over when you finally get kids to use the toilet at home, only to discover that you have to retrain them to use unfamiliar potties.

But with a little preparation and some know-how, you can help your child overcome his or her fears with these public potty success tips.

“I don’t make it a question,” says Dr. Ari Brown, MD, a pediatrician and author of Toddler 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Toddler. She says when her children were preschoolers, she would insist that they use the bathroom before they left the house. “I would make it a natural consequence, ‘We’re going out, go use the potty.’’’ Make using the bathroom before you leave home part of your routine for getting ready.

If you do want to pose it as a question, Dr. Brown advises that you make it something sequential, such as, “Do you want to put on your shoes first or go to the potty first?”

Familiarize Your Child with Store Bathrooms

Whenever I go into a store—grocery, electronics, the mall—I look around to make sure that I know where the bathrooms are located. (Usually, I remember where they are from those final days of pregnancy when I needed to find bathrooms in a hurry!)

Then, if you do need to abandon your cart for a quick potty run, you know where to go. This helps alleviate your own stress as well as your child’s, who is still trying to figure out when he really does have to “go.”

Preparing your child for what he’ll find in public stalls can ease his bathroom anxiety. Many features on commercial toilets that seem great for adults—like automatic flushing—can scare kids. (To avoid surprise flushes try covering the automatic sensor, the red button on the back of the toilet, with your hand.)

Another strategy? Dr. Carl G. Arinoldo, EdD, a psychologist and author of Essentials of Smart Parenting: Learning the Fine Art of Managing Your Children says you can empower your child when it comes to flushing. Let your child practice flushing at home, so that it’s natural on the road. When my daughter first started using public potties I realized she’d never really flushed the potty herself. I’d always done it for her. We’d waved goodbye to pee and poop several times in the potty, but I’d always been the flusher, and she just wasn’t used to it.

Dr. Arinoldo suggests letting your child flush a public potty when she doesn’t have to use it, so she knows what the sound is like. “Make it into a game-type of thing while waiting for the loud noise to occur,” he suggests. But if your child still remains fearful, Dr. Arinoldo says to remember that to your child “this is serious business! Treat it as you would any other type of fear. Let the child talk, and you, as the parent, [should] remain supportive—not critical.”

Prep Your Child for Park Potties

Ah, what to do when you’re at the park or on the road and your child needs to relieve herself? Some parents bring the training potty from home with them when they travel, which gives kids a familiar place to go.

You can also consider buying a plastic folding seat cover to bring with you when you have to make dashes into dirty gas station bathrooms. If the seat cover is used every time you travel, its familiar sight can make new potties a bit more comfortable. (Many fold-up potty seat covers are small enough to throw in your purse in a sealed baggie.)

Dr. Brown recalls that in a pinch, she used a small car trashcan as a makeshift potty when she was on the road and her daughter insisted she had to go “NOW!”

I’ll admit, I’m not fond of most bathrooms you’d find at the park. Port-a-potties? I’d rather bypass those, too. But when your child’s gotta go, he’s gotta go. To make enclosed public toilet trips a little more pleasant, make sure that your travel bag is stocked with tissues, perfumed lotion, and hand sanitizer.

Dr. Arinoldo reinforces that preparation is key—especially for children who are just learning. Point out the port-a-potty when you get to the park.

“You can tell [your child] that the potty is smelly,” adds Dr. Brown, “but everyone poops and that’s where it goes. It’s just a fact of life.” To make the trip a little more bearable, have your child hold her nose or dab a spot of perfumed lotion under her nose. Bring tissues in case the bathroom is out of toilet paper, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer afterwards.

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