Bedwetting: The emotional consequences

Bedwetting is a medical problem beyond your child's physical control, and it can take a huge emotional toll. Imagine how you would feel if you had a problem you couldn't control that caused you to do something embarrassing on a regular basis. Over time, this problem would likely make you feel ashamed and out of control - much like the way a bedwetter would feel.

Childhood is supposed to be a carefree, happy-go-lucky time. And as a parent, you want your children to feel good about themselves and to believe they can accomplish anything they set their mind to. But being a bedwetter can make childhood less than perfect.

One study indicates that bedwetters rate this problem as extremely important in their lives. Only parental fights and divorce were rated higher in terms of significance to a bedwetting child.

Whether or not your child understands why they wet the bed, it's a problem that they are likely ashamed of. After all, to hear their peers and siblings talk, wetting the bed is something babies do. And that is not a positive message for your child's self confidence.

Because bedwetting is so often accompanied by emotional problems such as low self-esteem or acting out, many mistakenly believe that these psychological problems are the cause of bedwetting, rather than the result.

Over time, the feelings of shame and embarrassment from bedwetting can result in a slew of problems that affect how your child feels about themselves, how they interact with their peers, and even how they perform in school.

For example, psychologists who have examined children with chronic bedwetting problems have found that these children rate themselves as being less competent in school and sports, less physically attractive, and less accepted socially. These effects may get worse with bedwetters who are older. Children who wet the bed have also been shown to be more likely to have behaviour problems, such as aggressive behaviour and attention problems.

Trying to keep this embarrassment a secret may also mean missing out on some childhood rites of passage - things like sleepover parties and overnight stays at a camp or even having friends over (to avoid being given away by the telltale odour in their bedroom), again making your child feel "different" from everyone else and reducing their opportunities to bond with their peers. Combined, these factors can isolate your child from their peers and put them at risk for bullying and teasing.

A child's response to bedwetting. Having to deal with the constant fear of being discovered as a bedwetter is a great burden for any child. They feel they are different from their friends, since they are the only one who wets the bed. A wish many bedwetters have is to wake up with a dry bed in the morning and not have to wear a diaper to do so.

In order to deal with all the pressures that come with bedwetting, many children try to cope with the problem in their own way. One way is to pretend that bedwetting does not bother them. So when asked, many bedwetters will tell their parents and doctor that bedwetting does not bother them. It is not until the child feels comfortable with the question and can trust that no harm will come to them will they start to discuss their bedwetting problems and fears.

And then there's the toll from lost sleep. Children need sleep for their bodies to develop properly, to learn effectively, and to stay healthy. In studies where elementary school-aged children had the number of hours they slept reduced, their teachers reported more learning problems, including difficulties remembering older material, learning new lessons, and completing their work. When you consider the amount of time it takes to clean up from bedwetting - from changing the sheets and putting on new pyjamas to calming an upset child - it's more than likely bedwetting is keeping your child from getting the sleep they need.

So if your child wets the bed, how do you minimize the impact?

The first step is making them understand that it's not their fault - and making them aware that you know it's not their fault. You can do this by explaining what causes bedwetting and by telling your child about your experiences if you were a bedwetter, too. They need your support and positive reinforcement.

Punishing or reprimanding a child for wetting the bed can only make your child's feelings of shame worse. Because your child probably only gets punished in other situations when they intentionally break the rules, this can reinforce the message that your child is doing something wrong.

But studies have shown that just the act of treating bedwetting - regardless of the outcome - can improve your child's feelings about themselves as well as their behaviour. Addressing and treating bedwetting can also prevent the physical problem of bedwetting from becoming an emotional one.