Q&A: 2.5 year old screaming in the bath

Jessica writes:

"Several weeks ago, my 2.5-year-old son decided he wanted to try wearing underwear. He did it for a week, many accidents ensued, and by Thursday, he started holding his poop because he was afraid to have an accident. He held it all day, and finally, during his bath that evening, he couldn't hold it any longer. It wasn't the first time ever that he'd pooped in the bath, but it had been at least a year and he surely didn't remember ever doing it before. I tried to react in a
nonthreatening way. I got a little bit "OMG POOP" on him and told him he had to get out of the bath right away. Then I calmed myself so I could keep him calm, told him it was okay and that I'd clean it up after he was in bed. So we did the bedtime routine, got him in bed, and I cleaned it up. I thought that was it. It was the end of potty-trying for now, though. He's happily back in diapers. Which is fine.

But my question is not about potty training.

Ever since the poop-in-bath incident, N has hated his baths. I can't decide if it's directly related (i.e., he's afraid he's going to poop in the bath again) or if he's hit that developmental spurt and
suddenly has a bunch of irrational fears, and one of them happens to relate to bath-taking. (For history's sake, he's always had fun in the bath, spent 20 minutes or longer, and rarely initiated getting out.) Now, he's perfectly cheerful until we get into his room and start taking his clothes off, at which point he starts whimpering. By the time we get to the bathroom, he's saying he doesn't want to take a bath, and when his butt hits the water (if we can convince him to sit
down), he starts shrieking and screaming that he wants to get out.

He used to just hate the hair-washing but would calm down and play once we were done. Now, it's full-on screaming from start to finish. Doesn't want to play, doesn't want to color with his bath crayons, doesn't want to sing or read a book. Just "I want to get out!!!!" at the top of his lungs, shrieking and screaming and sobbing.

I've tried asking him what's upsetting him, but I don't think he knows, or he doesn't understand how to answer the question. He's extremely verbal, but he's still only 2 and a half, and I think
cognitively, he's just not up to answering "why" questions yet. If I make suggestions, he just agrees with me. ("Is the water too hot?" "Yeah." - The water was lukewarm at best. "Are you scared?" "Yeah." "What are you scared of?" "I don't know." "Are you scared that a green monster is going to come out of the drain?" "Yeah." - Well, obviously not because I just made that one up myself.) Last night I tried asking if he was "sad or scared." He said he was scared. I asked if he was scared of the water. No. The soap? No. The drain? Yes. I have no idea what's going on in his head. I tried explaining that the drain is too small for him or his toys, that only the water and the dirt would go
down. But I'm not really convinced that the drain is the problem, either.

I would try doing the bath somewhere else, but we only have the one bathtub and he's TERRIFIED of the shower - always has been, wants nothing to do with it. I suggested that maybe tonight we would try sitting at the other end of the tub, away from the drain, but somehow I don't think that's going to help.

So, how do I help him get over whatever it is that he's so upset about in the bath so we can have fun, peaceful bedtime baths again?"

And this, my friends, is why we need my mom to open the Toddler Boarding School. Because then it would be her problem and not ours.

There definitely seems to be some bath avoidance at 2.5. It's all part of the 2.5 phase. Remember the whole Ames & Ilg theory of equilibrium and disequilibrium at 6-month cycles? Usually equilibrium hits around the year mark and disequilibrium at the half-year mark (of course your child may vary), so 2.5 is a hornet's nest of all kinds of stuff going on developmentally and physically, and bath avoidance is one of those things. It could be exacerbated by the poop incident, too, which means it might be a more visceral reaction than just the normal fear.

You've hit the nail on the head with your assessment of why you can't just ask your son what he's afraid of. At this age they're not really reliable narrators, and are easily led. If only there was a way to ask a 2.5-year-old "WTF?" (in a nice way, of course) and get an actual answer, but there isn't. So you kind of have to let go the dream of understanding why it's happening and just try to get through it.

First, I'd assess whether or not he actually needs a bath every night, and if he doesn't, don't give one. That'll cut the stress at least a little.

Personally, in your situation, I would resort to my most lazy self and just try to bribe him to get the bath done. Cookies, hot fudge, Thomas DVD on endless repeat, whatever it took to get his necessary parts washed.

If you're not down with bribery, I think you and your husband are just going to have to shoot rock-paper-scissors for which one of you takes the hit and has to give the screaming bath on any given night until this phase ends or he forgets about the poop drama.

Does anyone else have anything for this phase other than bribery or grin-and-bear-it? It doesn't last forever, but it's so troublesome while it lasts.