Accidents on step-parents' watch make them wonder about stress

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 6, 2012 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
My step son is turning 4 next month and has forgotten his potty training skills. My husband gets him for seven weeks during the summer. Within the first week, he had a potty accident. And now, in the sixth week, he's had at least one each week and then an awful #2 accident tonight. My husband is frustrated beyond consoling and I am just searching for answers. His mother lives out of state so this is not a typical every other weekend schedule. When we have him, he's here for long stretches of time. Also, she was in a very traumatic car accident in April, crushing both of her legs, leaving her very incapable of taking care of herself and son. I'm just wondering if you think these potty accidents are caused by the traumatic change in his mom's quality of life, or if it's simply because he's with us and his environment is different..? He's a very smart child and his explanation is simply, 'it was an accident.' He even smiles about it, which frustrates us more.

Any suggestions on the root of this problem may help us get through it.

Thank you for your input!

From: Miranda, Searcy, AR

Dear Miranda,

First of all, a few questions: (1) How sure can you be that he's "forgotten" his potty-training skills? Maybe he's never really had them down. My guess is that mom (for what sound like pretty valid reasons) has been laissez-faire on the issue. In fact, I'd bet that his response, "It was just an accident," are words that come directly from her mouth and I don't find that a bad response at all. (2) Have you asked mom about these accidents? Do they only happen on your watch, or were they happening on hers as well? How does she handle them? Ask these questions in a non-judgmental way so that you get truthful answers.

Is it absolutely possible that accidents can be caused by stress and trauma.They can also be caused by change and transitions. It may not be possible for you to tease out which is the bigger issue for him, but, given your description, the mom's situation sounds pretty difficult. Since her condition sounds like it may be on-going, it might be worth your husband having a conversation with her about the possibility of professional counseling for their child.

Another common cause is constipation or medical issues. If possible, get him checked out by the pediatrician before he leaves your home. Keep in mind that boys are often late to train.

Here are some tips for coping with the accidents:

1. Be matter-of-fact, not angry or punitive.
2. Enlist his help in the clean-up: "Can you get the paper towels?" After you rinse out the underwear, ask him to put it in the washer.
3. Back off the training and give him control: "I know having an accident in the middle of the night isn't very pleasant for you. Should we buy some pull-ups? That would be OK. Then you can decide what you want to wear each night."

Click here for more Q&A on potty training issues.


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6 comments so far...
  1. He's had ONE accident a WEEK and the husband is "frustrated beyond consoling" and they are ready to say that he's "forgotten" his potty training? That doesn't sound out of the realm of normal for a four year old to me. These parents sound overwrought. I hope they calm down and take some of Barbara's advice.

    Posted by rms August 6, 12 12:13 PM
  1. Goodness, "almost 4" doesn't sound like an age to be worried about an accident here or there to me? My daughter was pretty reliable at 4 (although not too much before), but my son was still having "accidents" at 6 or 7. My pediatrician didn't seem overly worried and I don't think I was laissez-faire or putting him under too much stress. Boys just take longer . . . .

    Posted by rsbeacon August 6, 12 01:32 PM
  1. I suspect not so much stress as change of routine has thrown off his schedule--different waking and sleep times, meal times, different food, etc. Plus if he's in a different environment with different things going on, he may just not be paying so much attention, or waiting too long to go because he's busy or distracted. How many of us have watched a kid jump up and run to the door to come inside and piddle on the back step?

    I would agree that a nearly 4 year old having an occasional accident is not the end of the world, but a 4 year old (barring disability of some kind) should be pretty well potty trained.

    Posted by di August 6, 12 02:10 PM
  1. I have to agree with rms, these parents seem a little dramatic . Once a week is not the end of the world. Plus, I worry how they are making the child feel about these accidents. My 3 year old son still has accidents and so do the other kids we know. Yes, I agree that stress could set a child back, but take a deep breathe and deal with it. He needs support, not anger.

    Posted by MAM August 6, 12 02:18 PM
  1. My daughter didn't really have it all mastered until a little after her 4th birthday, and she'd even started showing interest around 18 months. What I did see toward the end of the "training" was that sometimes her accidents were to her convenience. Never when we were out and about, only at home or at school when she was wanting some extra attention. Once I identified a pattern, spoke with the teacher and made sure the accidents were handled in a business-like fashion (rather than overly played as OK with hugs, etc...) and my daughter became as responsible for clean-up or we threw out favorite undies, she seemed to fully come around. Also, for newly trained frequent reminders before changing activities is helpful. For instance, "we're about to eat supper, do you think you should try before you wash your hands" or "It's time to put on jammies, would you try before burshing your teeth," might help build a habit.

    Posted by Sunshine MA August 6, 12 03:10 PM
  1. I started wetting the bed at the age of 8 when the family fights got too bad to stand. They happened a few times on and off.

    I have seen too many adults lose the contents of their bladders in hospitals. Ditto for the stools on the flor at extreme events...

    It's HORRIBLE that a kid should have to put up with a father that is "inconsolably frustrated" after a few events. Maybe the father should do a beter job of parenting his son through the stress of his mother's serious car accident.

    Posted by Irene August 11, 12 03:05 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. He's had ONE accident a WEEK and the husband is "frustrated beyond consoling" and they are ready to say that he's "forgotten" his potty training? That doesn't sound out of the realm of normal for a four year old to me. These parents sound overwrought. I hope they calm down and take some of Barbara's advice.

    Posted by rms August 6, 12 12:13 PM
  1. Goodness, "almost 4" doesn't sound like an age to be worried about an accident here or there to me? My daughter was pretty reliable at 4 (although not too much before), but my son was still having "accidents" at 6 or 7. My pediatrician didn't seem overly worried and I don't think I was laissez-faire or putting him under too much stress. Boys just take longer . . . .

    Posted by rsbeacon August 6, 12 01:32 PM
  1. I suspect not so much stress as change of routine has thrown off his schedule--different waking and sleep times, meal times, different food, etc. Plus if he's in a different environment with different things going on, he may just not be paying so much attention, or waiting too long to go because he's busy or distracted. How many of us have watched a kid jump up and run to the door to come inside and piddle on the back step?

    I would agree that a nearly 4 year old having an occasional accident is not the end of the world, but a 4 year old (barring disability of some kind) should be pretty well potty trained.

    Posted by di August 6, 12 02:10 PM
  1. I have to agree with rms, these parents seem a little dramatic . Once a week is not the end of the world. Plus, I worry how they are making the child feel about these accidents. My 3 year old son still has accidents and so do the other kids we know. Yes, I agree that stress could set a child back, but take a deep breathe and deal with it. He needs support, not anger.

    Posted by MAM August 6, 12 02:18 PM
  1. My daughter didn't really have it all mastered until a little after her 4th birthday, and she'd even started showing interest around 18 months. What I did see toward the end of the "training" was that sometimes her accidents were to her convenience. Never when we were out and about, only at home or at school when she was wanting some extra attention. Once I identified a pattern, spoke with the teacher and made sure the accidents were handled in a business-like fashion (rather than overly played as OK with hugs, etc...) and my daughter became as responsible for clean-up or we threw out favorite undies, she seemed to fully come around. Also, for newly trained frequent reminders before changing activities is helpful. For instance, "we're about to eat supper, do you think you should try before you wash your hands" or "It's time to put on jammies, would you try before burshing your teeth," might help build a habit.

    Posted by Sunshine MA August 6, 12 03:10 PM
  1. I started wetting the bed at the age of 8 when the family fights got too bad to stand. They happened a few times on and off.

    I have seen too many adults lose the contents of their bladders in hospitals. Ditto for the stools on the flor at extreme events...

    It's HORRIBLE that a kid should have to put up with a father that is "inconsolably frustrated" after a few events. Maybe the father should do a beter job of parenting his son through the stress of his mother's serious car accident.

    Posted by Irene August 11, 12 03:05 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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