Parenting Isn’t for Sissies | It takes a village to raise a parent

Sometimes things happen with our children that really stump us. When the issues are sensitive, we may feel even more overwhelmed because we’re not as inclined to reach out to other parents for support. Then we end up feeling isolated, alone with our worries.

Though we may never meet in person or share chores and chai, we can still lighten each other’s loads when we chime in and connect through discussion forums. Here’s an example of a recent post at

“My 7-year-old daughter recently started to think it’s OK to go poopie and then pull her underwear up without wiping. I think this happens while she is at school, so by the time she comes home she reeks! I tried punishing her by giving her time outs, grounding her and making her scrub her own underwear clean while I am doing laundry. I keep finding them (underwear) under her bed and mattress and in the hamper. This is now going into the third week and I feel like crying. … When I ask her why she does this, she replies, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know if she’s doing this for attention, for some psychological reason or maybe she’s just plain lazy. I don’t understand why all of a sudden she is doing this. Potty training her was so easy. What is happening?”

This parent is naturally fed up with a very trying and confusing situation, one that would rattle even the steadiest of parents. I’d hazard a guess that the situation is equally difficult for her child, who is clearly embarrassed and finding it necessary to hide the evidence. I believe her when she says she doesn’t know.

I was pleased by the advice of a woman who discouraged this mom from punishing her child for this behavior. I’d say this is a helpful approach, particularly where sensitive issues are concerned. A shaming posture can actually make children feel badly enough to keep doing the very thing we wish they wouldn’t.

Sometimes, though, children have little control over how their bodies respond.

Kids well beyond the potty-training stage soil their underwear for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, wiping isn’t always easy. It’s an acquired skill that requires real step-by-step instruction, and sometimes we just miss a spot.

The situation described here, however, sounds more like a case of encopresis, involuntary fecal soiling by someone already toilet-trained. Untreated constipation can lead to enlarged intestines and impairment of the nerves, which signal the need for a bowel movement, and then stool can leak into the underwear or even an accidental, untimely BM can occur.

Chronic constipation and encopresis are legitimate physical problems that require the attention of a health professional, and they should not be mistaken for laziness or deliberate defiance. Left untreated, these issues can also lead to emotional stress for both parents and children.

That said, the reverse is also true: Emotional stress can lead to constipation and encopresis. The date of the mom’s query suggests that, at the very least, this child was transitioning into a new school year. For some kids, transitions can be quite anxiety provoking, and sometimes they experience particularly difficult adjustments to new expectations and relationships. Throw in a change in bathroom and hydration routines and you’ve got a perfect recipe for constipation and even encopresis.

Sometimes the emotional causes are more severe. Once we’ve made sure that any medical problems are ruled out or resolved, I like to look at kids’ behaviors as flags. What is this behavior calling attention to? What’s happening that the child finds difficult to express? Counseling may help get to the root of this sensitive issue and is really important in unresolved cases of encopresis.


Got a question or concern you’d like me to address? Nothing is off limits. If you’re a parent and it’s on your mind, chances are you’re not alone. don’t suffer the wonders. Send questions to

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