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My kid yells “POTTY” to get out of anxious situations. How do I get her to stop?

Anxiety in kids is a completely normal part of their emotional and behavioral development. One parent shares tips for managing that anxiety.

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Dear Is This Normal,

My mostly potty trained 27 month old yells “POTTY, POTTY!!” whenever she is in an anxiety-driven situation, i.e. a stranger gets too close, too many unknown kids around at the park, to name a few.  I fell for the trap a few times, rushing her to the toilet before an accident in the most awkward of times.  She doesn’t actually have to go, but uses it as a tool to get out of dodge fast.  A) Is this normal?  and B) How can I get her out of it?

Signed,

Potty Mouth

Dear Potty Mouth,

OK, so I know this is not the point (we’ll get to that!), but I have to say, I’m actually impressed by your 2 year old’s ability to recognize an uncomfortable situation and get herself out of it! I’m several decades older than her AND I have an anxiety disorder, and I am not this adept at extracting myself when necessary to avoid triggering my anxiety. It sounds like she made POTTY her safe word after associating it with urgency, and that kind of cognitive recognition is, quite honestly, several developmental stages above her pay grade. 

But let’s get back to the matter at hand: it sounds like your daughter does have some situational anxiety. Is it normal? Yes, absolutely. Anxiety in kids is a completely normal part of their emotional and behavioral development. How can you get her out of it? Welllllll, it doesn’t really work quite like that. You can’t really “snap” her out of being anxious in certain situations. BUT, you can help her manage and cope with her anxiety in healthier, more productive ways. 

So, when it comes to helping your kids manage anxiety, experts generally recommend NOT eliminating or avoiding the source of anxiety. So when she yells POTTY, your first instinct shouldn’t be to hurry her out of that particular scenario. Which puts you in a pickle since you can’t really take the chance that she doesn’t have to actually go potty, you know? Classic boy who cried wolf sitch. It’s important to talk to her about why she’s using that word, and what it means when she uses it. Clearly, she understands that by saying POTTY, she can get you to react immediately. So explain why that is, and why that word in particular should only be used when she really needs to use the bathroom.

Then, start working on getting her to use a new safe word, one you come up with together! Something she can say when she’s feeling anxious that immediately alerts you to her needs. And then when she says POTTY, you know she really means she has to use the bathroom. I think it’s important for her to still have a safe word to use, but it’s also important that certain word associations be kept for the right action, if that makes sense.

Let’s talk about her anxiety itself. Again, it’s completely normal for her to feel anxious around strangers, larger crowds of people she’s not familiar with, being away from you, etc. Separation anxiety and stranger danger can start to set in between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age. It’s common and developmentally appropriate. But now that you’ve been able to recognize her flight instinct, you can work with her on coping with her anxiety and managing it in those situations, rather than running from it. It’s important that she feels seen and heard and that you show that you acknowledge and respect how she feels; when she wants to leave a situation, tell her you know she’s a little unsure but that you’re right there with her and you’re going to help her feel better. Set small goals for her! You mentioned a crowded park of unfamiliar kids being one of her triggers. So start with an attainable goal of staying to play in an area slightly removed from the other kids, for a predetermined amount of time. Every time you go to the park, move the play zone a bit closer to the kids, and stay for a bit longer. The more she faces a specific fear or anxiety trigger, and sees that it’s actually safe and OK, the less anxiety she’ll feel over it over time. 

Given that she’s only 2 years old, this isn’t going to resolve overnight. But by helping her and gently encouraging her to confront her fears, rather than avoid them, the more comfortable she’ll get. And also, given that she’s just 2 years old, a lot of this will resolve on its own as she gets older! In the meantime, just focus on these little steps for her to take, including that new safe word. It’ll help her feel empowered and supported, and also help you avoid a public potty accident.

Safe Words for Everyone!

Is This Normal

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