The link between toileting accidents and fatal child abuse – Principal Otago Polytechnic Lecturer Rita Robinson PhD

Media release – Otago Polytechnic ‘Lifting lid on notions around toilet training’

Otago Polytechnic Occupational Therapy lecturer lifts lids on notions around toilet training

Otago Polytechnic Occupational Therapy principal lecturer Rita Robinson hopes her research will lift the lid on societal assumptions and messages about toilet training, and how these affect adult behaviours.  Our society has strong views about toilet training, and Rita was interested in exploring how these views affect children — particularly those with some level of impairment or disability, and those who are subjected to physical abuse.

She embarked on a discourse analysis of New Zealand social messages about toilet training at three points of time — in the 1950s, in the 1980s, and currently, in the 2010s.

Rita’s research encompassed a range of relevant texts, from Plunket books and pamphlets given to families, to the textbooks that informed Plunket nurses and other health practitioners, as well as Government and international reports and policy documents.  Looking for insights into what is considered right and wrong practice, what is acceptable and what is not in our society, Rita found that our society assumes a strong link between cognitive delay and toilet training delay.

This means adults may delay toilet training for children who have cognitive disabilities, even though there may be no physiological reason why they can’t be toilet trained.  It also means children who are not toilet trained might also be assumed by adults to be cognitively delayed. In both situations the children can be disadvantaged by the societal assumptions that adults are making about them.

Rita also found evidence of a connection between toileting accidents and child abuse, especially fatal child abuse.

“Because our health depends upon hygienic behaviour, we are taught by our society’s messages to experience a strong sense of disgust for body wastes out of place,” Rita says.

“But there are physiological similarities between disgust and anger, and hence a risk that an adult who feels strong disgust might slip into anger towards a child who is not yet toilet trained.

“This important finding means that moderating societal disgust might help reduce the incidence of fatal child abuse in New Zealand when the antecedent is toileting accidents.”

Rita’s research has important implications for how parents and other caregivers toilet train children, and also for policy and practice in schools and government agencies. She is looking forward to working through these implications to benefit New Zealand children.

Rita Robinson welcomes further media inquiries.

Ph: (07) 834-8800 ext 8776; email: [email protected]