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My son is afraid of a public restroom

My son is 2 1/2 and is doing well with potty training with the exception of using a public restroom.

He has been in them before prior to potty training and never had any issues. He will tell me when he has to go, but when he realizes he is going into a public restroom he starts crying and will do everything to get out of there as fast as he can.

My husband has tried to take him and I've even tried taking him into a "family" restroom and he still panics. I do know he doesn't like the hand dryers.

Is there something I can do to help him be less afraid?


Emilio Arispe | Pediatrician

Emilio Arispe

I always try to look through the eyes of a child to try and grasp what he really is in fear of. To do this, we need to see what a 2 and a half-year-old boy developmentally really understands.

Then you must consider some of the obvious and not so obvious answers to questions about his fears, whatever they may be.

Let's  start with what he developmentally understands at 2 ½ years of age:

Here is a small sample of his level of understanding:

  • He can follow one to two-step commands (go to bathroom and wash your hands.)
  • He can play make-believe and start having imaginary play (his fears are real to him.)
  • He can walk on his tiptoes (seen with the "holding it" dance.)
  • He understands what happened yesterday (that's why repetition works here.)
  • He is able to communicate his needs to go to the bathroom
  • And most importantly he has a three-minute attention span (keep it short and simple)

Now let's look through the eyes of your son and  how he might see things:

We need to put the size of your child - and the toilet - in perspective:

Your son vs. the toilet seat

There are some actual physical challenges to remember:

  • The average 2 and a half-year-old weighs in at 35 pounds and stands 37 inches tall. The average toilet seat is about 11" x 8" open U-shaped (home seats are round ) and about 16-17 inches off the ground.
  • Therefore, the seat is about half as tall as your child and open enough to make him feel as if he could fall into the bowl.
  • Then imagine what it must seem like to have to sit on a cold large open seat with his feet dangling on the side.
  • To put this in perspective this would be like asking a 70 inch tall ( 5 foot 10) man to try and navigate a toilet seat almost 3 feet high.

An unfamiliar environment

Then add to  this the unfamiliar environment (not hHme Sweet Home.) The public restroom is cold and has lots of noises (flushes, hand dryers, sink noises, other people's voices and sounds.)

The grand finale: The flush

When he is done a very loud and forceful automatic flush( that can feel like a whirlpool) goes off and completely terrifies him. In a public restroom, the sound may be further magnified by the tile walls.

What can I do to prepare him?

The final part to helping your little guy is to try some sort of strategy that you have undoubtedly heard from your friends, relatives, grandparents and ParentSavvy.com (we all like giving advice!) 

I usually suggest 3 things when approaching a toddler issue:

  • Practice (& a little preparation)
  • Patience
  • Praise

Practice

First try to always have a routine of going to the potty at home before venturing out.  I suggest these things to help prepare for the real world public restroom "experience."

  • Run the hair dryer noise in the bathroom at home
  • Use  a seat cover (decorated with  his favorite characters)
  • Give him earphones or earplugs(which you might keep with you for the real public restroom)

This gives him real life practice run so that these items are familiar to him when he uses them in a public restroom.

EXTRA HINT:Throw some toilet paper in the bowl before he goes to minimize splashes which may bother him.

Preparation

The next step involves preparing to go out into the real world and attempting to help him conquer his fears in a public restroom. I suggest putting together a "potty bag" or backpack with these special items:

  • Ear phones or ear plugs
  • Sticky notes to place over the flush sensor so it doesn't go off before you are prepared. (Put the sticky on  before he enters to avoid an accidental flush.)
  • Hand towel or hand sanitizer in case he runs out of the bathroom and  he doesn't want to wash his hands.

Patience

Next I would take baby steps and try these approaches in familiar areas such as the homes of family, friends, relatives, the library, church, and local kids stores.

Then if you have success try larger public restrooms next. When out in public I would also suggest just taking him with you to the public restroom just for quick visits such as to look at the mirror, wash your  hands, or just have him stand in the stall with the you and flush once then leave.

Praise

Always try to use encouragement and reassurance for even the small steps at first, then praise and even reward him for his first big boy steps such as:

  • Entering the restroom
  • Sitting on the toilet
  • Flushing the toilet
  • Washing and drying his hands.

The rewards should be small and realistic.

It will get better

At the end of the day remember he will eventually lose his fear of public restrooms. The patience that you  show, the practice of taking repetitive small steps and the frequent but limited praise should get you  through potty training and most of the milestones at this age.

I hope this information helps you and if you have any further questions please contact your primary care provider or contact one of our pediatricians.

EDITOR: You can find a pediatrician, watch a profile video or schedule an appointment in our Find a Physician section.

 

Read more answers by Dr. Arispe