The Psychology of Withholding Bowel Movements

By Dr. Nicole Avena

Withholding bowel movements, or resisting to use the potty, can be a difficult situation, for not only children, but their parents, as well. This type of behavior in children usually comes right after potty training, just when you think they are independent. It can occur from a prior traumatic experience or from being distracted by environmental stimulation. Trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be something extreme, and the environmental influence on withholding also doesn’t need to be something you would even suspect as potentially contributing to this problem. Let’s dive in to break this down a bit!

I recall distinctly the first time I had to use a public restroom when my toddler was just potty trained. You know how some toilets automatically flush, rather loudly, once you get off? My daughter was petrified to use a potty in public for months after one accidently flushed while she was on it! Another example of a traumatic experience that may cause withholding in children is a painful bowel movement. Although this may seem mundane to adults, children who are newly potty trained haven’t had many experiences having bowel movements, especially if painful, unsuccessful, or watery. They are simply learning as they go… literally.

The experience of a traumatic bowel movement may cause psychological resistance to have another. This can lead to constipation, stomach pains, and bloating which can make children upset and uncomfortable. By encouraging your child to try again and comforting them when things can get rough, you can assist with any fears or anxiety around bowel movements.

The other aspect of withholding that comes from the mind is environmental distraction. Children are easily stimulated by things happening around them. For bowel movements, that means holding them in until they are finished watching a TV show or playing with a friend. The brain can only focus on several things at once especially in younger children and therefore if they are focused on something they deem as more important, they are able to hold back a bowel movement. This would cause similar side effects as the trauma response, but most of the time, children are unaware of the effects of withholding in this circumstance… because they’re distracted.

Overall, withholding due to psychological stress, anxiety, or environment is a hurdle many parents must jump with their newly potty-trained children and can be tough to manage. By continuing to encourage using the bathroom regularly, acknowledging fears or anxiety around bowel movements, and normalizing a conversation around how their bodies feel and act, they can continue to go without trouble. Your role as the parent is to be your child’s cheerleader in the bathroom. Using encouraging language and body-positive perspectives can teach your child to not withhold their bowels and to ultimately make them feel better. If your child continues to have constipation and stomach pain with withholding, Begin Health prebiotics can help regulate their bowels. By adding a probiotic into their supplement routine and making bowel movements a positive experience, it can encourage them to go… even when they would rather be watching the rest of that TV show!

Summary If you notice your child is withholding or has poor toilet habits, be your child’s cheerleader in the bathroom, use encouraging, body-positive language to reduce fear and support them on their journey of bathroom independence.



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