Code Brown

This post is part of our A Problem Shared Section, where a reader submits an issue which they require some advice on. Please comment below if you have had a similar experience and or you know of any thing which may help this contributor.


Our daughter (5), the middle child of three siblings and the only girl, is all about attention. Over the last couple of years we’ve dealt with all sorts of attention seeking behaviour and generally things are much better, though it’s always a challenge as she makes no distinction between positive and negative attention. Either will do.

Recently she’s been soiling her pants, both at home and at school. This happens for a week or two, stops for a while, then starts again.

So I became an armchair expert in encoperesis, the chronic constipation and leakage cycle sometimes seen in young children – I’m sure some of you know the drill!

We’ve tried all the various techniques for dealing with “sneaky poo” – rewards, ignoring, giving her responsibility and ownership… We’ve enlisted the help of teachers, her diet and fluid intake are fine. We’ve tried to stay patient and calm, as for the vast majority of kids it’s completely involuntary and can’t be helped. And we’ve been to see the GP to confirm that it is in fact encoperesis we’re dealing with.

Turns out that it isn’t.

There’s no underlying medical problem, no constipation, and no physical reason why this should be happening. It’s a behavioural thing again.

I could write a book about the probable causes and why we think our little girl is who she is, but what I’m hoping for here is some practical advice.

My latest technique seems to be working – for 48 hours, at least. I’ve told her that the doctor said great news, there’s nothing wrong with her tummy or her bottom, they work fine, so it’s completely up to her to decide if she wants a clean bum or a dirty, sore one each day. I’ve pegged up all her new, pretty, girly knickers on a line in the bathroom and she gets to choose a new pair each day she decides to stay clean (scuzzy old ones from the drawer if she doesn’t). And no reaction at all, negative or positive, to “accidents”.

But I’m bracing myself for the next relapse. Has anyone else been through this – what worked for you?

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2 thoughts on “Code Brown

  1. Sally

    We have been in Code Brown (and it’s rather less noxious cousin Code Yellow) with our two children. They are 10 and 13 now and it is only in the past year that things have improved significantly. We tried everything including all the things we shouldn’t have. Sometimes I would really get cross out of pure desperation. (Sometimes is was worse than a poo in the pants.) In the end we resorted to just saying every now and again ‘shall we go and try for a poo’ and reassuring them that everything was ok if they had an accident. No rewards or sanctions had any effect and I think both just tapped into the shame.
    When I look back now I think that they genuinely didn’t consciously know when they needed the toilet, because of everything else they were dealing with and because of disassociation due to past neglect.
    As we have worked on increasing feelings of safety and security and lowering shame, through all the usual therapeutic methods the behaviours have diminished. For us, it’s the holistic approach which has worked best.
    Hope this is useful. Good luck. It’s a long road, but she will get there.

  2. Kat

    Hi there
    We used to have similar with our daughter too – it was conscious holding and ahem releasing – all about control with her.
    Our kitchen table used to be her place of choice (and it *was* a choice) for the release.
    We tried the usual stuff the same as you therapeutic and, I’m sad to say in our case, not so therapeutic. In the end the only thing that worked was, the same as you, pretty undies and a bribe (motivational tool!) of a toy that she particularly wanted.
    I *know* that’s not the done thing, but it worked for her and she’s since forgotten what the toy was ‘for’ but continues to use the loo and the behaviour is in the dim and distant past.
    Lots of praise too when she used the loo and like Sally, helping her feel safe and talk to us (luckily she will talk at length about her feelings – I know that is unusual though) .
    Control was largely the reason for her Code Brown mode, so allowing her to choose her undies and outfit in the morning helped a lot too – she was less likely to ‘spoil’ the beautiful outfit she’d chosen rather than the (and I quote from memory) ‘stinky rubbish clothes’ I laid out for her.
    She now controls in other ways but at least her Code Brown days are done.
    I wish you the best of luck.


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