When you gotta go...
June 10, 2012 9:48 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my 4-year old get over her new fear of public toilets?

Our 4-year old girl has been potty trained for about a year and never had any trouble with any sort of toilet. About 2 months ago I was with her in a public restroom that had auto-flush toilets and it flushed while she was still sitting down and it totally freaked her out and now she's afraid of pretty much all wall-mounted toilets, auto-flush or not, especially if they have the split seat (with the gap in front). She'll go on any toilet that looks like a residential toilet whether it's in a public restroom or not but if she sees the wall-mounted type with the pull lever, she totally resists and won't sit down. Sometimes she'll let us hold her over the toilet but sometimes even that's a struggle.

She hates the loud flushing and sticks her fingers in her ears for any unfamiliar toilet but for the wall-mounted ones, I let her exit before I flush it. We've tried covering the auto-flush sensor to ensure that it doesn't flush before we're ready but she's still wary and usually won't go without a big effort. She'll deny needing to go, even though she'd clearly in agony. Freaky loud noises are a bit scary for her and she's always had that response but toilets were usually okay, even if she remarked on how loud they were.

I'm fine holding her up over the toilet but even that doesn't help all of the time. And after having my shoes peed on (again) today and bashing her head into the toilet paper dispenser yesterday attempting to get her into position in a tiny stall when she was really desperate, I'd like some ideas for strategies to get her over this.

We've had lots of conversations about how yes, it's loud and we understand that she's scared but nothing bad will happen (not just in the moment but at other times when it's not the crisis situation). We can reason with her about lots of things but this just doesn't want to budge. Never leaving the house isn't really an option and though she right before we leave the house, it's gonna happen that she needs to pee again while we're out. We used to have a portable potty, do we need to drag that around with us again? Other ideas?
posted by otherwordlyglow to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I used to sit sideways on toilets with the gap. Is that possible? Also, she is old enough that maybe just showing her the flush on the toilet, maybe even letting her trigger it, before she goes would be enough to ease her fear.
posted by Night_owl at 10:25 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you bring one of those potty seats with you? The ones that sit on top of a regular toilet seat to aid with potty training?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:37 PM on June 10, 2012

My eldest was like this for a long time. He hates loud noises, and still hates the toilet flush sound. He refused to use any toilet that was not home or daycare for a long time. We just chose gradual acclimation as our method. Anytime either Mr Joh or I needed to use the restroom when we were out and about, we would get him to come with us, but make it clear that he wasn't expected to use the toilet. Just gradual exposure to the toilet, and seeing someone else use it was the trick. It took a long time though.

I think the potty seat suggestion above is great. I think you can buy inflatable ones, if you don't want to lug a giant potty seat around with you everywhere.
posted by Joh at 11:17 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

The noise frightened my daughter too. What seemed to help her was processing on it. She needed to talk about how loud it was, and I agreed, and we talked about how it worked, and the motion sensor, and why it was important to have it be automated, and sloppy people who don't flush, and why it's important to flush, and how she always flushes but not everyone remembers, and how the robot toilet helps keep the bathroom clean when people forget, and so it's doing important work, and maybe that's why it's so loud, etc., etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:31 PM on June 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

As a non-parent & someone 30 years from 4 years old, I can understand your child's apprehension. I would suggest discussing (yet again) what happens with that whole motion sensor thing, how it can cause awkward situation with both adults & kids (including yourselves), &, this may be controversial, but de-emphasizing the harm of the germs in public toilets. Most splash back comes from our own, um, deposits and as long as the seat is dry/wiped down before using it, and we wipe ourselves well afterwards, there is little to fear. Those paper toilet seat covers help, but maybe too much for a kid to handle. My guess is the noise & unpredictability are the most disturbing factors (just like those air pressure machines at the eye doctors, which don't hurt, but are loud and make most folks jump). So, acknowledging the quirkiness of the mechanism, maybe making a joke out of it (depending on the kid), & showing she has some control by pressing the button or flushing the handle, might help. Maybe making a "Can You Beat the Motion Sensor" game out of it will make it seem silly and less nefarious. Perhaps if you let her play with the whole motion sensor feature when she isn't actually going (public toilet manipulated by her movement of the door or just her movement alone), might make it more silly than scary.

Worst case scenario, you could revert to pull-ups (or something similar). Most kids don't like to think they are not a big girl/boy or are moving backward, so my guess it that would hasten things along considerably. Not that you should shame her or emphasize the big girl/baby girl thing, but diapers are clunky & inconvenient (just as pads vs. tampons are for full grown women), so for comfort and convenience alone, she might move past this fear. If it's any consolation, I don't think this is a forever problem. While it might require some effort, she just needs to become desensitized or find the funny in our wacky motion sensor toilet world. Not necessarily easy, but not impossible. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 12:20 AM on June 11, 2012

The same thing happened to my daughter at that age. Her head was lower than the sensor and it went off when she was still sitting down, scared the crap out of her. Honestly, it took AGES for her to get over it, and she was freaked out by any public toilet. What sort of, a little bit, in an emergency, helped was that I showed her how it wouldn't flush if I held my hand over the sensor (or that toilet had a manual flush). So she would pee, then go outside the stall, and then I would move my hand to let the toilet flush. She was still nervous, and if she could hold it at all, she would.
posted by upatree at 12:30 AM on June 11, 2012

Just to add - we used to have a fold up potty seat that could be carried around pretty easily.
posted by crocomancer at 1:34 AM on June 11, 2012

Nthing carry fold up toiet seat with little bags withgel to turn the pee solid. Suggest you give up the fight and let her deal with it when she is ready.
posted by zia at 3:54 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've worked as a nanny with kids who had this fear and it really just took time to get over it. There was very little in the way of talking about it that helped - though talking about it did help a little. Talk about what specifically scares her - the noise is really loud. Talk about how the toilet works and what to expect: the flushing is going to make the water go down into the pipes and this is going to make a noise. Talk about how it makes a quieter noise at home too, it's just *a lot* louder in a public bathroom because there's an echo from the tiles. Talk about how those toilets need to have a "big flush" because they need to flush a lot.

Also just practice flushing the public toilet. Even if she doesn't need to go, or won't, just go in the stall - look at the toilet, flush it *before* she does anything, and if she freaks? Find another toilet or find a nice bush/tree for her to pee behind outside. (Oh, how many times I've done this - yes, even in the city - with potty training kiddos who just could not wait.) In time, it will get better.

The one thing that will NOT help is forcing her to go when she's obviously freaked out. That will make this process take a very long time as her current fear of the flushing will be compounded by being forced to do something that scares her.

Good luck!
posted by sonika at 4:42 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I understand katemed's suggestion for Pull-Ups out of convenience, but I would very much hesitate to use this. For a "newly" potty trained kid, this can absolutely seem like a punishment. In my experience, this would make things a heck of a lot worse and make her feel really angry. Kids value their independence and being "grown up," making them move backwards developmentally (from underpants to any kind of diaper) may cause a whole cascade of issues surrounding potties in general. At the very least, it will most likely be a huge struggle to get her to wear the pull-up in the first place.

She wants to feel like a big girl and she IS a big girl. She shouldn't have that feeling compromised because she's afraid of loud noises. If she's able to connect the two, she might even associate fear with having her independence taken away, which is not what any kiddo her age needs.

I would only put a potty trained kid in a pull-up if they were seriously regressing and having repeated "accidents" and this doesn't sound like what is going on with your daughter.
posted by sonika at 4:48 AM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

My daughter is four and flat refuses to use any toilet that auto flushes. After many tears, I've given up. I know where the standard toilets are in every mall within fifty miles, she asks me everywhere we go if this place has a good potty or a bad one. Sigh. In an emergency, she will sometimes try it if I go first to show her it isn't scary but that doesn't always work. This has been going on for a year. If you solve this, for goodness sake, post how you did it. But I have not been able to overcome the terror she felt when it flushed while she was on it that one time.
posted by supercapitalist at 5:32 AM on June 11, 2012

My daughter had this fear, too, and we actually managed to cure it pretty well. First, we explained and demonstrated how the auto-flush works. It has a little electronic eye on the back wall that waits until it sees someone sit on the toilet. Once that someone leaves its field of vision, it waits a couple of seconds, and then flushes. You can demonstrate this using your hand. Now, that field of vision is pretty narrow, so for a small person, it is easy to get out of the field of vision, especially if you are leaning forward, and what is a person who is afraid of the toilet going to do? Exactly, lean as far forward as possible. We told my daughter that the toilet would not flush as long as that eye could see her, so she should sit up nice and straight as possible until she was done. The first few times we made sure to be on hand to dispense TP ourselves so she didn't have to move to pull it off the (sometimes inconveniently located) dispenser herself.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:00 AM on June 11, 2012

When she's in a not-having-to-pee state, can you go into a handicapped stall with a robo-toilet and let her watch you press the button, show her where the sensor is, wave your hand in front of it and let her see it go off? And then that time or another time, bring her back and see if she'll wave her hand in front of the sensor herself? It might be the whole thing seems freaky and magical and it might help if she understood how it works.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:04 AM on June 11, 2012

We are having luck with slow acclimation. We go regularly to a public bathroom that has auto-flush -- inside a large bathroom with included sink. We go in, and I cover the sensor. Then, we spend time inside -- I'll use the toilet, we wash hands, etc. Then, my son uses the portable potty (which is very small and not hard to have in my bag at all times). In this way, he is coming to trust how well the sensor-covering is working.
posted by xo at 6:11 AM on June 11, 2012

For some reason, my 4-year-old has taken this on herself as a sort of control issue -- that is, she'll rush to flush it herself (sometimes before she's done) rather than have it catch her by surprise. Maybe following up the sensor-covering with letting your kid either push the manual button or (and/or) cover her ears while you do so? Just another thought.
posted by acm at 6:15 AM on June 11, 2012

We had the same situation with our 3-year-old, and what's worked was a combination of the above. Showing him how it works, that mommy is going to cover up the sensor and make sure he's done, talking about how it is a loud noise (we played with echoes in an empty restroom on one occasion to demonstrate why it sounds so loud) etc. One final twist I added in a fit of desperation that finally seemed to do the trick is to give him some power back over the toilet. We both yell "FLUSH TOILET!!!" to let the toilet know that we're done, then I take my hand away and we giggle when it follows our orders. He still keeps his hands over his ears sometimes, and heaven forbid we suggest he use a blower-style hand dryer, but at least we can use the toilet when we need to. I also found that just making a stop in the toilet part of the routine (e.g., "Oh, it's been an hour or two or whatever, it's time for both of us to try to go to the bathroom!") so you're not stuck in those emergency situations and the kiddo gets some gentle exposure to the bathroom being an ok place.

Just a word of reassurance, fears of whatever odd thing are completely common at this age. It will get better soon, probably all on it's own.
posted by goggie at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Post it notes (dark) to cover the sensor.

Then she covers her ears when she's "pulled herself together" (our phrase for being dressed and ready to open the stall door) and you rip the post it note off of the sensor to commence the flush.

Or noise-protection headphones (don't even have to go that far if it's more psychological than physiological). Went through this with one of the kids, one of the others only a little bit it was more just copy-catting.

It might be more physiological if they are sensitive to the air-dryers as well.

posted by tilde at 7:07 AM on June 11, 2012

Try bribery.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:07 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha, yeah, my boys are just now getting over that (they've been potty trained a year and a half, and are 4.5 years old.) I generally cover up the sensor (some friends recommended keeping post-it notes in your bag for this) and promise, no swear, that I'm not going to let it flush.

But like I said, they're getting over it now. Time helps.
posted by pyjammy at 7:08 AM on June 11, 2012

My 4-year-old does this for any public toilet (it started when she first used the bathroom at our grocery store, which has the loudest, most violent flush I've ever heard. And they have those super-powerful, skin-moving hand driers). Since then, it's expanded to fear of self-flushers.

1) We make sure she's used the restroom before and after we go anywhere
2) If we have to use it at our grocery store, I promise to flush it when she leaves the stall
3) cautioning against the post-it-note, because a few times it hasn't worked, and she was really upset/shocked that I didn't keep my word that it wouldn't flush.

If you're out and about a lot, do get a portable to use in the car. I've decided to do this after a horrible (crying, screaming, begging, wrestling) episode in a (different) grocery store where I had all 4 of my (under 5) kids with me, and she had to go. The blinking light just terrified her. Most of it is the anticipation and fear of it flushing while she's on the toilet. Her 3 and 2 year old brothers both went and flushed before she did, and that didn't help her overcome her fear.

(And avoid airplane bathrooms. The self-flushing + sanitary-plastic-moving-around-the-seat set a friend's potty-training endeavors back a whole year)
posted by katyh at 7:38 AM on June 11, 2012

Oh gaah, katyh! Thanks for adding that. I usually just used my hand, not the post-it note trick, so good to know.
posted by pyjammy at 8:12 AM on June 11, 2012

My daughter had the same fear.

I'm not sure you can do much. Pretty much everything we tried didn't work - only time apparently.

We used to carry a potty with us - she's also fine with peeing on the grass - so we do that if we can find safe spots in public parts.

It seems to diminish with time (she's almost over it now, but it lasted for about 6 months, including 2 eight hour flights in which she refused to use the airplane toilets - she just waited until we reached home)
posted by motdiem2 at 8:26 AM on June 11, 2012

Yeah, there's no way we're going back to pull-ups. That would be seriously humiliating and in no way do I want to humiliate her. I just want to make her feel safe in the restroom. It sounds like it's fairly common and most of you just waited it out. I'll see if I still have the fold-up potty somewhere and keep that on hand but the portable seat that goes over the regular potty won't really solve it.

We've tried explaining the sensor (and covering it)and she just doesn't believe it but I think we'll do some excursions to the restroom specifically to talk about it and see if that helps.

I forgot that she also hates the hand dryers and won't use those at all. That's not a big deal at all though. I just let her dry her hand on her pants or on mine.

In the mean time, I'll keep wearing sandals. They seem to be much easier to clean for the inevitable errant pee stream issue.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:46 AM on June 11, 2012

Aw man, that was me as a kid. For very many years the pendant light switch in the downstairs toilet in the family home would only work when pulled at the trajectory of a swiftly exiting 5 year old, ARGHGAHITSGONNAGETMEGETOUTNOW.

Then there was that stop over at a French petrol station on a family holiday where the lights were out and there was a scary elephant ride machine in the toilets. That encounter ended up in mum picking me up and bundling me through to the stall with a hand clamped over my eyes.

I had the same problem with car washes - water + noise + no escape = absolute terror. Didnt seem to matter that one was a legitimately scary and claustrophobic thing and the other was a day to day experience but there I was, scared of the damn toilet in the only home I'd ever known.

I eventually grew out of it but have quite vivid memories of not coping well when outside the home 'not going is definitely better than having to go because going is seriously scary'.

Really not sure if I would have been able to be reasoned out of it, I probably would have reacted well to some kind of reward at the end of the whole ordeal or a comforting presence - I was pretty attached to a particular soft toy at the time. I know bringing blanky into the mix wont be much fun, but then neither is the stress.

Maybe have the door closed but not locked so that she doesnt feel that shes trapped in there?
posted by Ness at 8:53 AM on June 11, 2012

Oh, just had a thought, since a lot of it was about the noise for me, if walkmans/ipods had existed at the time, I'm sure hearing or singing a cheery song may have helped.
posted by Ness at 8:57 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about trying to flush the toilet while she is on it at home? Or would that just scare her away from using the toilet all together?
posted by wrnealis at 10:05 AM on June 11, 2012

What if you have an excursion that is solely pottie-based? You only take her to go flush a pottie. Not to use it, just to flush it. Obviously, this only works if you have the free time. Then in a couple of days, take her around to two different places and flush the potties there. And so on. See what different toilets sound like when they flush, figure out what triggers them, see if they shoot water upwards when they flush (my least favorite part), and all that, so that she can get used to them and have a plan of action in her head for when she decides to start using them again.
posted by Addlepated at 10:39 AM on June 11, 2012

Ness had an interesting idea. If you have a smartphone, it's got a built in music player anyway, so if you throw some earbuds in your purse you can always have her favorite song at the ready to pop on when she sits down on the potty, and take away the stress of anticipating the scary flush.

I feel for you OP... am going to be coming up on this post potty training period again soon and I dread it! It's a harsh truth that post potty training time, having to manage kids' use of public toilets, is actually a lot less convenient than just letting them go in diapers and changing them after the fact.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:20 AM on June 11, 2012

Some great ideas here. I think talking is helpful for the logical side of things and as back up to everything else but the behaviour won't change just based on that.

Similar to the idea of flushing when she doesn't need to go, is sitting on the loo, with all of her clothes still on, while she doesn't need to go: she sits down, you pretend to do a pee (make pee noises or something to make it fun or funny) and then she gets off the toilet and either she flushes or you flush, as you wish.

And then make a big fuss about how awesome she was through the whole process. Do it a good 5 or 6 times, preferably at a toilet you know she'll have to use at some point and then see if she'll give it a go for real after that.

Praise, tell other people in the family how brave she was (in front of her, of course); rinse, repeat.

Good luck, my nearly 3 year old just won't pee in public toilets at all, unless they smell really nice, have lovely music playing and are, generally speaking, a 5 star toilet. Tally ho!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:42 AM on June 11, 2012

So speaking as someone who is still phobic about toilets (I HATE THE NOISE) and yet is old enough to have a four year old child myself...my best suggestion is to make sure to always use the handicap stall. For me, the further away I can get from the noise, the better off I am and that almost always means the handicap stall. Bonus: sometimes the handicap stall doesn't have the obnoxious auto-sensors.

Also, I would suggest making sure to not use the temp seat covers as those crinkle and make noise and 'home' toilets don't have them and therefore they are Bad.

If she wants to hurry up and get off the toilet before she's all put together again (so, before undies are pulled up and buttons re-buttoned), I would let her. Just getting away from the toilet helps my anxiety; to this day I will flush the toilet with the door open and one foot ready to run.

I do hope she gets over this in time, but if she doesn't, please just give her space (literally and figuratively). It won't harm anything if she's not a huge fan of public toilets--she'll figure out ways around it, if this issue does stick around, when she gets older.
posted by librarylis at 7:58 PM on June 11, 2012

My daughter had this too--same with the loud blowing hand dryers. Time will make it better. In the meantime, I'd encourage her to talk about the time when it flushed unexpectedly, how loud it was, how scary that must have been, etc so that her brain can make sense of those feelings and so she feels like you're hearing her about her anxiety. I also carried post-it notes to cover the sensors and we had a little routine with it: I would try to find the handicap stall, cover the sensor with my hand or a post it, reassure her that it will not go off until she is ready, give her a chance to get off the toilet and dressed, and when she said go, I'd let go and it would flush. I think doing that successfully a couple of times helped her trust that she could be "in control" of the situation and not be constantly worried about random loud noises. And ya, I also knew of all the regular flushing toilets in town too and tried to go to those...it's tough. Good luck!
posted by biscuits at 9:42 PM on June 11, 2012

Does she have a strong startle reflex in general? This is a little out of left field, but I'm hearing impaired and don't hear a lot of background noise, so when there's a loud foreground noise it startles me much more than other people.
posted by desjardins at 11:43 AM on June 12, 2012

Just an update, things got much better pretty quickly and there wasn't a whole lot that we did differently. Showing her the trick of holding your hand over the sensor and letting her do it for me when I used the toilet was key (esp the part of "helping" me not get scared about the auto-flusher). We haven't had to hold her up above the toilet for almost 2 months now and I'm really grateful for that!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 3:20 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the update. Our kids had the toilet aversion thing (but were FINE in carwashes, go figure; they LOVE them). They HATE having their hair buzzed (music player and earbuds to the rescue) (one hates getting cut, too, and I understand, the sound of scissors during haircuts provokes my flight response).
posted by tilde at 6:35 AM on August 24, 2012

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