Apr 22, 2013

Help Your Child Conquer a Fear of Public Restrooms

Question: My son does not like to use public restrooms, including the one at school. As a result, he becomes constipated during the school year. Any suggestions?

— Christie P.

Answer: Ask your son what he fears: the automatic toilets that flush on their own, the loud flushing noise, the lack of privacy, bathroom bullying or maybe germs. Once you know the root of his fear, do what you can to eliminate it.Gabby Reed, Ph.D.

Automatic flushing toilets often scare younger children. If this is the problem, explain how these toilets work. When he uses the restroom, have him place a sticker or sticky-note over the flushing sensor so the toilet won’t flush until he is ready. If the loud noise frightens him, give him permission to leave bathrooms without flushing (he will grow out of this eventually).

Older kids often fear others peeking under the stalls or hearing them while they are using the bathroom. If this worries your child, try making arrangements with the school nurse for him to use the nurse’s bathroom or one in the teachers’ lounge.

Bathrooms can be a bullying hotspot. If you suspect bullying is behind your child’s fear, address the issue with teachers and school counselors and insist they get it stopped.

If germs cause his angst, urge him to use seat covers or give him a sanitizing spray. Do not make a big deal out of bathroom germs yourself, either. Anxiously telling him not to touch anything in a bathroom and making him rush to the sink to wash up afterward sends the message that bathrooms are dangerous places.

Praise your child whenever he successfully uses a public facility. Your words will go a long way toward making his motivation to use the bathroom greater than his fear — Gabby Reed, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist in Gastroenterology at Children’s and assistant professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern

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