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My 6 y.o. is what Dr. Becky (if you know her) would call a "deeply feeling child." Every day is either the best or worst day ever, and she usually declares each day as one or the other multiple times per day. Everything is an emergency when it comes up, she wants our full attention all of the time even when we can't give it, talks a lot, and screams and yells a lot. Just to paint a picture.

Yesterday, she started asking about if anything lives in the toilet and can come out while she is using it. We told her there is not. She told us about a noise that came from the bathroom when she turned on the faucet or something, which makes sense because I had had the water to the house off earlier that day for some repair work and some pretty intense gurgling afterwards is normal. Despite our explanations of why that sound occurred, she is scared of bugs or animals coming out of the toilet while she is peeing.

Right now, she is complaining about being scared of going to the bathroom, and has been crying about it for 10 minutes. We've explained to her that everything is fine and there's nothing to be afraid of. Last night, I helped her go to the bathroom when she was scared, thinking that would be the end of that, but it apparently is not. We've decided to not continue going with her to the bathroom, so that this doesn't become a regular thing, and she absolutely refuses to go.

She was also one difficult to potty train. It took probably about two or two and a half years (from the time she was two and a half) for her to stop wetting herself regularly, and even now she goes through phases where she regularly pees in her underwear a little bit before going to the bathroom.

How can we convince her to go to the bathroom by herself? All of the other things we help her with, that we walk on eggshells around her to try to help her, I cannot add going to the bathroom regularly with her to that list.

Edit: After two days, she stopped showing any fear of the bathroom.

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  • 3
    Be patient. She will pick up on your concerns.
    – copper.hat
    Mar 4 at 6:27
  • 1
    I'm afraid your decision to not continue going with her might increase her anxiety and end up making the problem bigger. I'd advise to just go with her until the fear has subsided. After x many times going there (with one of you) and nothing happening, she'll probably decide she can go there on her own too.
    – HarryH
    Mar 5 at 19:19
  • Can you say what she might have meant by '… when she turned on the faucet or something…', please? Mar 5 at 22:56

8 Answers 8

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I don't think this has anything to do with her toilet training difficulties. That's normal in a great number of children.

I don't know your daughter (obviously) and I don't know Dr. Becky, but I do know about irrational fears. Your daughter most likely isn't doing this for attention, or just being dramatic or overly sensitive. She has an irrational fear, it's anxiety provoking, it's obsessive, and it's real (to her, anyway.) You can reassure her that nothing will come out of the toilet at night until you're blue in the face; you can show her a plumbing diagram of toilets and how it's all one-way-only, and she will understand, but she will still have that fear, because right now, that's the hiccup her mind is having. I commend you for consoling her instead of dismissing her fears, and for asking for help.

Everyone has irrational thoughts, but for many, they are quickly dismissed or forgotten. Maybe it's the age, and as your daughter is of the age when "monsters under the bed" type thoughts start, it might just be that. How you react - emotionally available and not dismissive - is important.

First, please familiarize yourself about irrational and intrusive thoughts in children. When you understand them, you might try explaining to your daughter in simple terms how they work, and a comparison to hiccups might be helpful. E.g.(in age appropriate language): Hiccups come whenever they come, they are a bit bothersome, but they're only hiccups. They won't and can't hurt you, and they go away eventually. People can try to stop them (so many remedies -!!!- indicates the desire for control over the possibly uncontrollable) but they always stop, and if you don't dwell on them/if you think about pleasant things, they seem less bothersome. Intrusive thoughts are like hiccups in your imagination: they are bothersome, the more you think about them, the more afraid you are of them, the more you try to control them, the more they seem to control you. But when they come, if you just accept them as a brain hiccup, and know that thoughts are just thoughts, not real, it's just a hiccup, it will become more tolerable and have less of an effect on you.

This video explains intrusive thoughts for adults. I usually don't recommend sites that ultimately peddle a product, but just ignore the end of video product placement. It may be helpful. This video is a child therapist's approach to intrusive thoughts. It's a long video, but the main point is to recognize it's an irrational thought, accept that you have irrational thoughts (everybody does), and move on.

If you or your partner have OCD or ADHD, this may be an indication that your daughter has inherited the predisposition for it. If not, it's still something you might want to discuss with her doctor.

Edited to add: @jpa has a great answer. I wanted to edit to add something which may help, but it isn't a solution, really, as much as an affirmation that might help her through it for the moment, and that is, after showing her the mechanics of how toilets work, have her flush the toilet immediately before sitting, thereby forcing down anything that might come up out of the water. I don't know if it will work; irrational thoughts rarely are conquered by rational solutions.

I'm not suggesting that your daughter has my diagnosis, but I can really empathize with your daughter here, because I had the exact same fear at her age. I never told anyone about it, because I understood it was ridiculous, and I thought my fear would be met with laughter. But it wasn't funny to me. It was only at night, it was very uncomfortable, and I absolutely dreaded going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It turns out that I have OCD, a fairly mild form of it, and the revelation (by a therapist) that my intrusive thoughts (no longer of toilet monsters) were just OCD provided me immediate relief. I wish I had known that long before I found out.

Tackling Irrational Fears in Children and Teens.

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    Answer sounds good. Just to add a data point, as a kid/ado I had fear of looking in the mirror when going to the bathroom in the dark. I mean, talk about "irrational" right there.
    – AnoE
    Mar 4 at 10:38
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    Yes, @anongoodnurse, a friend (50ish) has recently been diagnosed with ADHD; she suffered badly for many decades that I knew her, but with that official diagnosis she's now perfectly fine. Not knowing what her "problem" all the years was was way worse than the problem itself. Maybe a bit off-topic, just fascinating; these diagnoses are not just "labels" but may be very meaningful (probably sometimes positively, sometimes negatively) for the persons afflicted.
    – AnoE
    Mar 4 at 15:32
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    When I was around this age, I read The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a Sherlock Holmes story that ends with a venomous snake coming through a vent and (spoiler?) killing its owner. The image stuck with me powerfully enough to be afraid of a snake coming in at night; our NYC apartment didn't have vents, so the fear morphed around the toilet: what if a venomous snake came up? I realized the fear wasn't rational, but for a long while I left books on top of the toilet lid and made sure the bathroom door was closed before sleep. Mar 4 at 16:07
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    The mind of a child is a fascinating thing... Like many similar fears around this age, I eventually "just" grew out of it. But it was real, and had I told anyone about it, I (a) am not sure it would have been taken seriously, and (b) would not have been helped with rational reasoning about the specifics of the situation. Mar 4 at 16:09
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    Incidentally, I had a strong fear of the bathroom mirror as a child that continued to cause discomfort well into adulthood (although I understood it was irrational). I heard about the "Bloody Mary" myth one time and spent the next 20-odd years worrying about the mirror, even though I am not superstitious in any other way!
    – Meg
    Mar 4 at 16:31
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I went through this pretty exactly, with my son at the same age. He's also a more intense, emotional sort, and perhaps coincidentally was also very slow to potty train.

He suddenly, for no apparent reason, got the idea that snakes might come up through the toilet. It started with him wanting me to check for snakes before he went to the bathroom, then led to needing me with him to use the bathroom, and them progressed to complete refusal to use the bathroom at all, and total regression of potty training.

I tried logic, I tried showing videos about how plumbing works, I tried tough love, I got on the waiting list for child therapists, and then decided to fight imagination with imagination. We found a youtube video about what smells repel snakes. We gathered a small plastic bottle from the recycling, and some old essential oils and fragrances from a long-ago candle making attempt and mixed up some "toiletsnake repellent" with scents and water. I tried to involve him the process as much as possible (although I did pre-screen our video search for one that recommended ingredients that we already had on hand...)

It was immediately highly effective. For about a day, he was adding a bit of the scented water to the toilet and flushing each time before using the bathroom, and then for a few more days he used it from time to time, and then it's like he forgot the whole thing.

So, I would suggest that it's mainly important to do something that makes your child feel like she has control over the situation, and not to dismiss her concerns or try to logic her out of her feelings.

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    Just like we can't control hiccups, we can't control irrational thoughts. But fighting it with magic is brilliant, as "control" is the thing that empowers us to overcome. Very glad it was effective. For me, I probably would have shifted to a different irrational thought, but then, my mind was prone to this. Hers may not be. Mar 4 at 18:31
  • newsweek.com/…
    – Questor
    Mar 4 at 18:45
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    I myself had a similar experience as a child. It wasn't snakes in the bathroom but ghosts in my bedroom. My parents trying to explain that ghosts don't exist and even if they exist they couldn't harm me was all to no avail. Then my brother (only a two year older than me) got the idea to paint a few "ghosts forbidden" signs and put them up in my bedroom. Apperently ghosts are very law abiding and didn't show up anymore. After a week or two the signs started to fall off but I didn't care anymore.
    – datacube
    Mar 7 at 12:18
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First of all, try to keep the situation calm as far as you can. The fear will pass sooner if there is no extra anxiety from failing your expectations.

If you have any method that has been successful in establishing new routines (potty training, dressing up, toothbrushing etc.), use that to slowly bring back the confidence in going to the bathroom by herself. For example, if rewarding works, first start with going to the bathroom and flushing the toiler without sitting, and then work upwards to actually doing the business.

Explanations don't work with all children, but it could help if you can show exactly what you did - shut off the water again, show how you did it. Drain some water, turn it back on. Tell that there is air in the pipes, and then you can go together to test what kind of sound comes, with you being present this time so that the situation is not as scary.

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  • I was about to edit my answer to include telling her to flush before sitting on it if it makes her feel better when I saw this, which is far better than my edit would have been. You've given the OP a workable solution here. Great answer! Mar 4 at 14:07
  • Nothing has been successful in establishing new routines with her, unfortunately. Mar 5 at 2:41
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While instructive, I think many of the answers here don’t properly address what to do, which is:

Accompany your child in the bathroom.

That’s it. Be boring about it. Don’t dismiss her. Don’t dismiss her fears. Just don’t reinforce needing to be there (that is, don’t make it fun, or a great time to talk, or whatever). Don’t hurry her. Don’t let her waste time after she’s done. Check the toilet for scary things first if she needs it.

Feel free to tell her that scary noises are scary, but if all it is is a noise, then growl back and move on. Heck, growl together at the plumbing as you enter the bathroom (to scare away the scary things), then take care of business, then leave.

Being there for her is what makes the difference. At some future point — a week, two months, a year — she won’t need you to be there any more.

Part of being a child is learning to handle fears.

Part of being a parent is helping your child face fears with grace and love.

(I’m gonna skip the explanations and child psychology today — ’cause I don’t wanna write a book to randos on the internet.)

Good luck! (And enjoy having a little kid for as long as you can!)

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    Came here to say this! Sometime between now and when she is 18, she will learn to stop being afraid.
    – Mike Vonn
    Mar 6 at 13:47
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    More than that — sometime between now and eighteen she will stop needing your company, and you’ll wish you had more time with her.
    – Dúthomhas
    Mar 7 at 3:08
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Raw idea: Get her a potty that can support her weight, task her with emptying and cleaning it after every use.

Doesn't require her to immediately overcome her fear, but leaves an incentive for her to do so asap.

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  • Also familiarizes herself with operation of the toilet.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 7 at 2:13
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Show her how the toilet works

This may or may not work depending on the child - but a possible approach might be to show her exactly what happens in the toilet - specifically when you flush it.

It might help if you first draw a picture of the plumbing - U-bend and all - from the cistern to the toilet, to the pipe that leads to the drain.

Then take the lid off the cistern and show her the reservoir of water, and better still if you have access to the drain (which is generally not visible for obvious reasons but may have a cover you can lift) outside, then take it off.

Then flush it - or ask her to flush it - and show her the water being drained from the cistern then down to the toilet. Then go to the drain outside where she can see the water flowing away from the house. Then you can explain that there couldn't be anything in the pipes because it would get flushed away every time someone flushes the toilet! Things can only go down the drain, never up!

You can then tell her (as I believe you already have) that sometimes there a bubbles of air in the pipes - especially after the workmen have done some work - and that's what makes the gurgling sound. (You could go as far as demonstrate this by emptying a bottle of water and showing how the air gurgles up through the bottle but that might be going a bit far)

The more fun you can make this activity the better

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    My idea is closely related to this one, so I'll leave it as a comment: I suggest also showing her how to recreate the scary gurgling noises by shutting the house water off. If she has the strength to do it, let her turn the valve(s) herself, or direct the OP to do it. The idea is to remove the mystery and put her in control. Mar 4 at 16:20
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    @WayneConrad - That's a good answer. It might get lost in the comments. Mar 4 at 18:19
  • Good suggestion, to help with a fear of something that is extremely unlikely to happen... but also wrong. Things can come up the toilet. Source? I have done a lot of plumbing. Also you can just google it. Snakes, squirrels, rats, and frogs are all capable of fitting thru the sewages pipes and coming out the toilet... Its rare but it happens.
    – Questor
    Mar 4 at 18:45
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    @Questor - perhaps, but I was thinking more along the lines of explaining the process to a six year old, and the OP could possibly omit the minor detail that, while rare, snakes have been known to swim up toilets...
    – komodosp
    Mar 5 at 9:50
0

I very recently had a similar case at a friend's place I was staying for a few days. His son was afraid to go to the toilet alone because he was seeing a face on the wall.

I had the idea to paint a palm tree on this wall (initially with paint, then I realized we can use Stabilo crayons you can wash).

I spent some time with him planning the tree that would go on the face, we did a lot of touching of the wall before (I tricked him into "feeling" the surface where his parents told me the face was, to check if it is good enough for the paint) and we spent some time looking at the walls.

After he had touched the wall a lot, and then covered it with a drawing we did together the problem vanished on its own.

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    How could this idea be applied to the toilet? Right now, it's an anecdote more than an answer. Mar 4 at 18:18
  • @anongoodnurse The idea of my answer (or anecdote as you call it) is that sometimes going for the issue itself (visual or auditory) is a way to "fight" the threat (as opposed to saying that it does not exist). It may work or not, this is not physics so yes- my answer is an anecdote one can get an idea from.
    – WoJ
    Mar 4 at 19:46
  • I suppose leaving a big wooden stick by the toilet in case she needs it to fed off whatever comes up the toilet could help?
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 7 at 2:11
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Bit of a frame challenge. this fear is not as irrational as you think.

A lot of the posted answers claim that snakes and other creepy crawlies can't come up the toilet because toilets are one way. This is wrong. All the plumbing of toilet does is prevent sewer gases (which smell foul) from entering the house. And acts as a siphon to take waste/everything in the toilet to the sewer/septic tank. This design doesn't prevent things from coming up the other way.

This is good example of where a child's intuition is right. It is a valid fear, snakes, frogs, rats, and squirrels have all been found coming up out of a toilet.

Specific example Here is a specific article about a women from Arizona last year. This is a general article that does a good job explaining how it can happen.

Except when you are flushing the toilet, or running water in a sink your drain pipes are full of air (excluding p-traps).

Why do I know this? I have some experience with plumbing. Did the plumbing on my house, I know how it works.

That being said

Your kiddo is scared about monsters coming out of the toilet, because there was air in the pipes when she used the toilet one time... and it made a scary noise. Scary noises are real, and scary. I would explain what the cause of the noise was, help your daughter replicate that noise (by introducing air in the pipes again.

Your daughter is scared because their was a scary noise, whose source she couldn't' see. knowing where the noise comes from will help.

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  • strange to be downvoted
    – Fattie
    Mar 4 at 20:04
  • @Fattie Saying that a 'irrational childhood fear' has some rationality behind it wasn't going to win me any points.
    – Questor
    Mar 5 at 16:46
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    It's simply not an "irrational" fear. It's an unlikely fear. it's totally commonplace that bugs come out of toilets (ie out of the water) and in many regions (say simply Australia) it's utterly normal that you must worry about getting (say) bit by a redback when you're using the toilet.
    – Fattie
    Mar 5 at 17:02
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    Questor, many people on this forum downvote answers that take children seriously rather than advocate authoritarian views. I’ve upvoted your answer to counteract that (and because it’s helpful). Mar 5 at 22:20
  • No, the answer is not very helpful. The questioner directly explains the steps they took to make the child not worry, your main answer is to educate her on why it makes those noise, the OP already did that. The fear is still remaining. What you are suggesting has already been done by the OP and has nothing to do with authoritarian views... Mar 6 at 12:55

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