How to Potty Train a Stubborn 3-Year-Old

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 Since you’re reading this article, it will come as no surprise to you that potty training a stubborn child can make you feel like you’re going crazy.

It’s hard to know what to do to help your child learn such an important life skill when they simply do NOT want to do it.

At three years old, adult logic tells us that it’s high time that a child learns to use the potty.

However, the stubborn child may have other plans that make this seem like an impossible task to achieve.

stubborn child

The good news is that it’s actually not impossible to potty train a stubborn child.

Sooner or later, things will click, and you’ll find potty-training success.

Along the way, there are several things that can help make the journey a little (or lot) smoother for both you and your little “threenager”.

BUT first, even if your child is “already three years old”, you should consider an important question:

Is your child REALLY ready to be potty trained?

With potty training and other life milestones, it’s super important to never compare your child to other children—not even to their siblings or their peers.

Kindly ignore what grandma says or what other moms think. Every child is unique, and comparison never helped anybody.

Psychologists and pediatricians alike agree that there are several certain developmental signs that show a child’s readiness to potty train.

Among these indicators are an awareness of bodily functions and the physical ability to do the tasks associated with using the potty.

Admittedly, most children will be at that stage by three years old. But that doesn’t guarantee that your child is emotionally ready to leave the diaper behind.

Maybe it’s time to start the process, but for your child it still could take a long time to reach the goal…and that’s okay.

Before you stress out, consider if it’s so important that your three-year-old be potty trained by next month. What will really happen if it takes six months or a year to get there?

Most of the time, a child that stubbornly resists the potty just isn’t mentally ready to take this step in their life. Waiting until they show that they are ready (or at least until the topic doesn’t cause fits) will almost guarantee much quicker results.

As a bonus, you’ll both feel much less overwhelmed.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the potty topic altogether while you wait for the right moment to begin training. Take the time that your child needs, but also prepare the way for success by introducing the topic in a non-demanding manner:

  • Let your child see you and their siblings using the potty.
  • Talk about how much fun it will be for them to learn this big kid skill.
  • Read potty training books with your child.
  • Make a special trip to buy underwear in fun prints.
  • The idea is to make using the potty seem like so much fun that hopefully your child will want to take this big step.

Hey! By the way… any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon are affiliate links and I earn a commission if you make a purchase.

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But sometimes you HAVE to potty train your child

Of course, sometimes you’re forced to potty train your child before they seem completely ready.

Preschool requirements or other family situations may force you to hurry up the process more than would be ideal.

If this is your case, brace yourself for a challenge, because it may be more difficult than ever to potty train your stubborn child.

The good news is that won’t be impossible if you prepare yourself with a good game plan for success.

How to potty train a stubborn 3-year-old

It doesn’t matter what preschool or anybody else says about your three-year-old needing to be potty trained.

If your child has a stubborn personality and doesn’t want to learn right now, you may find yourself engaged in a big power struggle.

To avoid unnecessary frustration for both of you, it’s important to be aware of the bumpy road ahead and to prepare yourself with lots of potty-training techniques that will help your child feel in control of their learning process.

Consider trying some or all the following suggestions to help get your little strong-willed toddler ready for their potty-training adventure:

1. Clear all diapers from your house.

A few days before the big day, show your child that the diapers are running out.

Tell them they only have a few days left to finish using the last of their diapers, then they’ll have to use the potty.

This lets your child know what’s going on and helps them to begin thinking about the change that is ahead.

2. Get your child thinking positively about potty training

Start talking about how nice it will be for them to not have to use diapers anymore.

Don’t try to jump into potty training just yet, though.

Just talk about how exciting it will be for them to be a big kid who uses the potty.

Children’s books and shows about potty training can be helpful for reinforcing your positive potty talks.

3. Set aside a weekend or take a few vacation days from work

You need to assign time to dedicate to potty training.

It’s highly unlikely that your child will be a potty pro in one day. At the very best, this project will be a marathon over several days.

4. Create a reward chart

Have your child help you create a reward chart.

Letting your three-year-old have a say in the prizes they want to earn will give them more motivation to work for them.

Every time your child has a potty success, give them a small reward and involve all the family in celebrating their job well done.

Also have a larger, long-term reward that really motivates your child to want to use the potty all the time.

5. Get your supplies for potty training

Gather everything you need for potty training before getting started.

The items will vary according to your situation, but generally you will want to have the following things on hand:

Potty chair or a potty seat and step stool

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Toys/activities to keep busy while sitting on the potty

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Snacks and lots of drinks to prompt more bathroom trips

Potty watch to remind your child to try to use the potty regularly

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Potty training reward chart

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Carpet protector (if you have no space with tile floors to keep your child in)

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Underwear and/or training pants

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Cleaning supplies

Travel potty (if you have to leave the house during your potty-training marathon)

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6. Use fun underwear to make potty training more exciting

Let your child pick out undies with their favorite cartoon character.

They might like these options for boys and girls.

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On potty training day, tell them to try really hard to not pee or poo on Buzz or Elsa.

Alternatively, if your child seems to not be bothered by soiling their underwear, just throw a t-shirt or play dress on them and let them go commando.

Some children who have no problem going in their undies will be much more apt to use the potty if they have nothing else on to catch the mess.

For naps or nighttime, continue to use a pull-up or some sort of training pants until daytime potty training is accomplished.

7. Use a step stool

If you decide to potty train with a potty seat on the toilet instead of a child’s potty chair.

Many children fear sitting on a big toilet with their feet dangling in mid-air.

A step stool can go a long way toward providing security and helping your stubborn toddler feel more comfortable transitioning to using the potty.

For more medically-backed advice about the potty-training process, check out this publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How to approach potty training with your child

Before getting started

Several days before the big day, take a few minutes each day to mention the upcoming training day to your child.

Show them the calendar and count down the days until the potty time.

approach potty training for stubborn child

Try to help your child feel excited about potty training, but also encourage them to tell you about any doubts or fears they may have.

During potty training

Make a big deal of the event.

Announce to the whole family that your three-year-old is ready to learn a big skill and have everyone say how excited they are for your child.

Explain to your child when you get them dressed that today they will not use a diaper.

Instead they will need to use the potty when they have to pee or poo.

Tell them to let you know any time they feel like they might need to go.

At the same time, regularly check in with your child to suggest that they try to use the potty.

It can be difficult at first for your child to know exactly when it’s time to go to the potty.

Reminders from you can help them know when to go.

potty training

Expect mistakes and help your child to not feel upset about them.

Have them help you clean up and encourage them to keep trying. Explain that they are learning and that mistakes happen.

Above all, try to keep a positive attitude.

Potty training a stubborn toddler is messy and stressful, but if you can relax throughout the process, you’ll find that your child will, too.

For more smart mom advice about how to approach potty training, check out Jamie Glowacki’s book Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right

Also, check out these thirty tips for unique approaches to potty training that have worked for other moms.

Why do toddlers resist potty training?

A three-year-old that resists potty training often feels like they need to control the situation. Demanding that they use the potty will likely just make them resist more.

toddler resisting potty training

Your child may also be fearful of the toilet—the size, falling in or the flushing sound can all be scary for some children.

What can you do if your toddler is refusing to potty train?

If your child shows all the signs of being developmentally ready to potty train, but refuses to do it, there are certain steps you can take to help them decide to potty train.

Involve your child in the decision-making process.

Give them the option to use pull-ups or big kid underwear at first.

Let them have a say in choosing the day to get started.

Ask them what reward they would like for learning to potty train.

Make sure your child knows that you’re in this together.

If they feel like you’re there to help them rather than trying to force them, you’re much less likely to find yourself in a battle for control.

Provide extra support for toddlers afraid of the toilet’s flushing sound or of falling in.

Use a potty chair or a potty seat and a step stool combo to provide extra security.

Also, refrain from flushing until your child is out of the room.

Once you’re over the using the potty hurdle, you can get them used to the sound.

If your child still resists, take a break and start again later that day or the next.

During this break, give potty-training a complete rest and don’t talk about it for a while.

Points to remember for potty training stubborn kids

  1. When you find yourself in the trenches struggling to potty train a stubborn three-year-old, try to take it one day at a time and celebrate every success, no matter how small.

2. Avoid getting angry with your child for accidents (even if they seem to be on purpose). The lack of praise and rewards when they have accidents will get your child’s attention more effectively than a punishment or angry words.

3. Unfortunately, potty training stubborn kids usually doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s very possible that your first potty training efforts won’t be successful and that’s okay.

Each child’s ability and willingness to learn new skills are very different. Be patient, take a break when you or your child needs it, and keep trying. Eventually, your child will become a potty pro!

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Kendra Isaacs is originally from the state of Kentucky but moved to Mexico to study and ended up staying for love. She has a BA in Spanish with a minor in Communication Studies and has recently completed a master’s degree in Hispanic American Literature. In addition to writing and translation, she teaches English and enjoys photography and baking. Kendra is currently expecting her first baby and now uses the investigation strategies she learned while writing her graduate thesis to guide her in her newest and biggest project yet: preparing for her expanding family during a pandemic, miles away from her family. Here she shares her findings with our community to make it easier for other moms to find the answers to their most frequently asked questions.

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