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Am I Enabling My Daughter’s Mess and Disorganization?

My daughter Natalie’s ADHD makes it impossible to keep things neat and organized. What’s a mom to do?

My daughter, Natalie, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is an ADHD-inspired mess-maker extraordinaire, and her propensity for creating chaos drives me absolutely crazy. But am I enabling her?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave the house for a walk around the block because I’m overwhelmed and fuming about the inevitable, uncontrollable mess that Natalie creates simply by living. As I stomp down the sidewalk, I wish I could just keep on walking. My destination? Anywhere that isn’t home.

Other days, I picture organizing every single item in the house — a place for everything and everything in its place (labeled, of course) — and locking it there: padlocks on every closet and drawer. I envision a locked toy storage area (with library-style shelving and a cataloging system — see, I’ve really thought about this) with a security guard who checks out just one item at a time to Natalie, and won’t allow her anything else until she returns the first. Sometimes I imagine hiring a full-time assistant to do nothing but follow Nat around and clean up after her clutter. Sometimes, I simply picture a big dumpster.

Yes, really. It’s really that bad.

The connection between children with ADHD and poor organization is twofold.

For one, Natalie has a need for stimulation, for something to see, feel, and do (and someone to do it with, but that’s another story) that is so strong that the thought of not having it gives her anxiety. This propels her to grab whatever is within reach as she leaves the house to climb into the car, for example. She even insists on bringing entertainment into the bathroom.

The second ADHD connection is attention related. Say she’s playing with Legos and then decides to work on a puzzle instead. As soon as her brain registers puzzle! that becomes her one and only focus. The Legos simply cease to exist. How could I expect her to clean up something that, in her mind, isn’t even there?

Besides that, cleaning up is just plain boring. She’s much too busy. And she knows she doesn’t have to. Nine times out of 10, she knows that what she doesn’t pick up, Mom will. Thus, Mom is the enabler.

Mom needs a plan to change this. But how? So far, my attempts to teach her to pick up after herself have been more work than it’s worth. Trying to make her aware of what she leaves in her wake means being on her case constantly. Cleaning up after her is the easier choice.

For a while, I tried to focus on just one thing — I decided to teach Natalie an after-school routine first. I bought Natalie and her big brother each a locker-style cubby, with hooks for backpacks and jackets and shelves for hats, mittens, and shoes, and positioned them right inside the front door. But before long, the cubbies were full of stuff and the backpacks and shoes were back on the floor.

It’s usually much worse than that. More often than not, Nat takes off her shoes in the car and leaves them behind in the backseat. She also empties her backpack in the car, scattering papers, her lunch bag, and miscellaneous detritus onto the seat and floor. Half the time, her shoes and backpack don’t even make it into the house. School-related clutter only exacerbates an already difficult situation.

I know I should already know how to handle this situation, but it’s just too big for me to figure out how to break it down into manageable steps. So please help me out here, parents. Do you have any tips? How can I start holding Natalie accountable for picking up after herself, short of calling in the National Guard?