Clean your room! This single sentence is all but guaranteed to trigger a cascade of arguments in any family with an ADHD child. Kids with ADHD struggle with organization, and their apparent resistance to keeping their room clean causes tremendous stress and frustration for parents and kids alike. It’s typical for a parent to send a child with ADHD off to clean their room only to check on them an hour later and find that nothing has been done. Or to have their child proudly announce that they have finished cleaning when in fact they have only picked up a handful of items off of the floor. Do they not see the mess? Do they not care that their parents are becoming frustrated and threatening to take away privileges if they don’t clean up? Many parents start to wonder if the frustration and hassle is worth it. Maybe they should just pick their battles and let their child’s room stay messy?
If your child has ADHD and cannot seem to keep their room at least somewhat clean and organized, then there is a good chance that it’s not simple defiance or lack of caring on your child’s part. They might have a real weakness in skills related to organization. These kids get overwhelmed when asked to clean up a mess, they struggle to consistently put things away where they belong, or create a logical plan for organizing a space. While it can be tempting to ignore your child’s messy room – and there is definitely merit in choosing to pick your battles – your child will benefit in the long run if you help them learn the skills they need to create and maintain a clean and organized room.
- Keep it simple. Avoid creating a complicated organization plan where multiple steps are needed to put away a single item. For example, avoid boxes with lids that stack on top of each other. Stacking boxes may seem like a simple solution, but in reality they require your child to complete multiple steps including taking down a number of boxes, lifting and replacing lids and replacing boxes in a neat stack (phew!). So, instead aim for clearly labeled, unstacked, lid-free bins that you child can toss things into with one step.
- Reduce the clutter. The fewer things your child needs to keep organized the more likely they are to keep their room clean. See my previous post for tips on helping your child get rid of stuff that they no longer need.
- Create a clean room checklist. While the phrase “clean your room” seems like a very clear statement to most adults, many kids don’t actually know what this means! To them cleaning their room may literally mean just picking up a few items off of the floor, or shoving their clothes into their closet or tucking them away under their bed. Clearly define the meaning of “clean your room” by creating a clean room checklist. This checklist should be specific. For example: (1) all items are picked up off the floor, (2) clean clothes are on hangers or folded in drawers, (3) dirty clothes are in the hamper, (4) toys and books are in their spots on the shelves, (5) trash is in the trash can.
- Tackle only one section or checklist item at a time. The overall task of cleaning a room is overwhelming for most kids with ADHD. So, break it down into smaller chunks by asking your child to clean just one spot in their room (e.g., put away all of the toys that are in front of the bookshelf) or to complete one item on the checklist. Then, when they complete that task have them tackle another.
- Do it together. If your child hasn’t been able to clean their room on their own so far, then they might need you to help them with the process until it becomes routine. Helping your child clean and organize can also help you identify and correct pitfalls in the organization plan that might otherwise derail your child.
- Take pictures. Take pictures of the organized space and attach them to your checklist. This will give your child a visual reminder of what their clean room should look like when they are finished. You can take before and after photos too so your child can see the progress they’ve made!
- Don’t aim for perfection. Avoid setting the cleaning bar so high that it’s out of reach for your child. Think about what your child’s room looks like now and their current ability to keep things organized. What would you consider to be a reasonable, modest improvement from the current situation? That’s where you should set the bar. Then once they’ve achieved that goal, consider aiming for a higher level of organization.
- Pile on the praise. Remember that the task of cleaning a room is hard for your child. Praise their hard work and their effort. Let them know how proud you are of them! The more you acknowledge their effort the more likely they are to clean their room again.
Helping your child learn the skills they need to keep their room clean and organized will definitely take some effort and planning at the start. But over time both you and your child will have fewer arguments and less frustration, and your child will learn skills that they’ll use for a lifetime.