Help My Child Won’t Poop

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

Get your parenting advice questions answered at Annie´s Advice Column
Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

Hi Annie

Help! My child won’t poop! How do I get my 5-year-old to poop? Doctors say it is behaviour-related, not medical.

Help, my child won't poopWhenever I hear a question like “Help, my child won’t poop” I have to say I feel awful for both parent and child. First, poor you and him. You must be feeling horribly frustrated, and he must be feeling very uncomfortable. Okay, the doctors say it’s not medical, but rather behavioural. That means, essentially, what you have here is the ultimate battle of wills. Now many people will tell you that when you have a control battle, you should back off and refuse to engage, as it will simply make it worse. While they’re right in the sense that you can’t make a child go to the bathroom and shouldn’t try, they are completely wrong when it comes to how to deal with such a battle.

Help, my child won’t poop: This is a control battle

Let me explain. Children act out for a reason, which is why I offer support services to both solve long-term and short-term problems. Children do it for attention, certainly, but they also do it without really understanding why. That’s because what we see as “controlling behaviour” is actually created in response to a fundamental need in your child that is not being satisfied. What is that need? Leadership. Children are designed to be led. They have needed it since we lived in caves, and they continue to need it, as it is fundamental to how humans develop.

You see, children need to be with you, watching what you do. They need to mimic and follow you in your day-to-day activities, and while they watch you do all the things you do, to them you look confident, and you show them where to go and how to get there. You are like a captain on a ship, charting a course and leading your sailors toward a common goal. Now imagine if there was a difficult sailor on your ship. The sailor screamed a lot and gave you a very hard time about not wanting to go where the ship was headed. He wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t do a whole lot of things. Would you change your course for him? Would you back off?

This is a matter of leadership

My guess is “no,” and it’s exactly the same for your child. Now, let’s bring in all those people who say you can’t control getting your child to go to the bathroom. They’re absolutely right. You can’t. What you can do, though, is to look at the rest of your life with your child for indications of difficulty, because the proverbial “difficult sailor” on our trip doesn’t just act up before dinner every night or when he’s faced with a plate of beans. It’s a constant, ongoing thing, and it shows up in his behaviour at other times. That means to solve this issue, we have to stop looking at it as being about using the bathroom and holding on to poop and start looking at it as a matter of leadership. Get that right, and the problem will disappear.

How do you do that? Well, “Help, my child won’t poop” is a call to action. You must demonstrate that you mean what you say and will persevere through thick and thin, through hell and high water. You must take the lead and be the captain, and you must make it entirely clear what your expectations are—that your child will use the bathroom effectively. You cannot force him, of course, but you can make that choice the only really appealing one to take.

But first, I’m going to assume that your child is simply refusing to go, which means that you spend a lot of time hanging around the bathroom, hoping against hope that he will poop. So first, take the stress off. Let it be known that you’re happy to hang around the bathroom or the house for as long as your child needs to evacuate comfortably. Really, it’s all fine with you. All you want to add in a clear, calm manner is that you unfortunately can’t go out until he’s done that, as you know that it’s very hard to poop in strange places, and you certainly don’t want him to feel uncomfortable. That logically means you’ll have difficulty going anywhere for a few days, so allow that to happen.

Help, My child won’t poop:  Be boring!

Make the plausible connection that his friends can’t come over while he remains uncomfortable and in need of a washroom, since he may have to spend longer in the toilet than most other people. Allow him to get bored as a result. Denied of other friends and outside entertainments, he’ll probably look to you, so it’s important that you are about as interesting as a block of marble in the meantime. Keep doing other things so you divert your attention away from the bathroom, even if he tries to bring it up. When and how he goes is completely up to him.

If your child decides not to sit on the toilet and has accidents as a result, try  not to look bothered but explain calmly that all the fun things you could be doing will now have to be sacrificed because you’ve got so much cleaning up to do. Then cheerfully clean up but be completely boring all day long. Don’t give him tablets, phones, computers, or any other entertainment. A book to read should suffice. What you want to do here is keep the emotion out of it completely and just give him two very defined logical choices that are backed up with logical consequences. Don’t hold on to your bowel movements, and we get to do fun stuff and be included, or hold on to them and be bored, because mom can’t wait around all day waiting for something to happen from a bowel point of view.

If they are calmly denied some fun activities, any five-year-old will quickly realize they are on the losing end of the bargain. My guess is that, as a result, you’ll see the behaviour change course remarkably fast. Oh, and add some fibre to his diet (although you’re probably already doing that). It might ease the passage. For more help with your parenting, please visit my  parenting services page.

Bon Voyage!


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