How to Potty Train a Stubborn 3-Year-Old

Many children need to be potty trained by the time they are 3 years old so they can go to preschool, where diapers aren't usually allowed. However, this monumental task can become one of the first major power struggles you'll engage in with your child.

How you choose to handle potty training can set the stage for future power struggles. Fortunately, tried and true ways to potty train even the most stubborn child will grant a sense of control to your toddler and peace of mind to you.

Prepare your child for potty training by talking about the benefits. Read such books as "I Want My Potty," by Tony Ross, and "Lift the Lid, Use the Potty," by Annie Ingle. At this point, make no demands on your child -- simply discuss how exciting it will be to use the potty. DVDs can be useful at this point, too. If your child has a particular show that he loves, find out whether that character has a potty-training show.

Create a reward chart with your child. A 3-year-old will be able to tell you what types of incentives she would like to work toward with her potty chart. A reward chart for potty training will be most effective if a child is rewarded for each success and also has long-term goals for a larger reward. Behavior analyst Mary Barbera, author of "The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children With Autism and Related Disorders," suggests having a bag of small toys from which the child can choose each time she uses the potty.

Begin your program slowly, and let your child make some of the decisions. Your behavior chart may start with your child being rewarded for simply sitting on the potty or telling you that he has to use the potty. Once that skill is mastered, move on to the next step of peeing in the potty.

Get rid of diapers. Once you and your child have moved to the next step of peeing in the potty instead of just sitting on it, or your child informs you when he needs to use the potty, get rid of diapers except during naptimes and bedtimes. Some children need to sense what an accident feels like to give them the incentive to use the potty. Diapers mask the feelings of wetness and cold.

Take your child to the potty very regularly. Ask your child every 30 minutes if he needs to use the potty. If it's been a while since your child has urinated, point out that he will be rewarded for sitting on the potty. As your child learns to recognize the signals that he needs to use the toilet, he may begin to ask you to help him on the potty, and then you can elongate the times between trips.

Have your child clean up her own messes if she is still having regular accidents after several days or a week of following your potty-training program. This action teaches the child the consequence of urinating or having a bowel movement outside the bathroom. Do not get angry or scold your child, because that will create a power struggle. Instead, very calmly have her remove her underpants and put them in the wash, clean herself and wipe any surfaces that may have been soiled.


Be firm, but patient. You will be able to potty train your child in a short period of time if he really wants the reward you’ve promised and if you offer support in a friendly way. A stubborn child will close down if he senses criticism.


If your child seems unable to control his urine, consult your pediatrician to rule out an underlying health condition.