Potty accidents due to stress?

My three-year-old was fully potty trained prior to my separation and now she has very frequent accidents, two or three times per day. My family says to scold my child, while her father says I should not be upset. He says the accidents are just due to stress. I am seriously frustrated because I am not sure how to handle this situation.


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Listen to the father of your child on this one. It appears that he understands the effects of stress on a three-year-old, while your parents (family) do not! Though you are separated, you may still have the workings of a good parenting relationship.

It is natural for your daughter to show signs of regression under stress. The break-up of her parental relationship is highly anxiety provoking for her. Her whole world is changing. Help her adjust to these changes by soothing, not ridicule. Help her strategize ways to get to the bathroom, but do not make a big deal of her loss of control. Refrain from shaming her at time when she is already feeling tremendous insecurity.

Consider attending parenting classes to establish guidelines for judging and responding to her needs through this transition. Without seeking a different perspective, you are likely to repeat the patterns of parenting you received. If you do not explore other attitudes towards child rearing based on empathy rather than control, your daughter could suffer loss of self-esteem and show further signs of falling apart.

Be sure to separate your daughter's difficulties from your own self-esteem. Especially during this time of transition, it is crucial that you do not accept ridicule from your family about her behavior. If they are not supportive in helping you soothe her and yourself, seek other, more constructive help, outside the family.

Give your daughter a greater margin for adjusting to a destabilizing situation and do not neglect yourself! Seek your own emotional support through this transition. Joining a support group for women in transition may help you share your frustrations with others going through a similar period of change. Nurturing yourself through this life change is your best insurance that you will have the patience to soothe her when she falls apart.

Your frustration may well be a signal to attend to your own needs first so that you can respond more positively to your daughter. As the stewardess says in the airplane, "In the event of a fall in cabin pressure, put your own oxygen mask on before assisting your child." Clearly, without taking care of ourselves, we will not be able to help anyone else!

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