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“I Turned My Son into a Lean, Mean Cleaning Machine”

I learned that the power of touch takes the anger out of my child when I ask him to do chores.

You ask your child to clean up. He resists you, as always: “But I don’t want to clean! I hate cleaning! I didn’t make the mess!” But you know he needs to clean, and he needs to clean now. Normally, you raise your voice. He raises his, and soon you’re frog-marching him to his bedroom for a time-out and nothing gets done unless you confiscate toys.

There’s another way: touch.

When you ask your child to clean, put your hand on his shoulder. He’ll still resist, but you can gently steer him toward the mess, rather than frog-march him later. Your touch keeps you both calm; it shows gentleness, rather than anger. Children respond to that.

Say you’ve touched your kid on the shoulder, gently, looked in his eyes, kindly, and told him you need him to clean, and you’ve still gotten the diatribe. It’s time for the next stage: making it a game. This takes imagination on your part, but we often tell the kids that they need to “scourgify the playroom”, a la Harry Potter, or pick up the Rebel Base, as in Star Wars. Some kids will respond to this immediately, run back and clean happily. This happens with my six-year-old about 50 percent of the time.

The rest of the time, my son still doesn’t want to clean. So I tell him that I’ll help. Children who have ADHD get easily overwhelmed when they look over a messy room. I go into the room with him and slouch there with my iced tea, ordering him to pick up different parts: first the blocks, then the dragons, then the stuffed animals. Sometimes it’s a matter of organization: They can’t see the different parts of a mess, and therefore they can’t figure out how to clean it.

[Free Download: 10 Solutions for Disorganization at School]

The power of touch comes in handy here, too. Chances are your son will get distracted and start playing with his toys. This is normal for an ADHD child. Your job is to intervene in this playing. I usually approach my son and hold him gently by the shoulder. “You’re supposed to be picking up [whatever part of the mess we’re picking up right now]. You can play with that toy when you’re done cleaning.” It usually provokes some grumbling, but it keeps my son focused on the task at hand.

Other times, when I ask my son to clean, he gets very angry. He insists that he’s the only one who ever cleans, that I’m picking on him, and that he doesn’t want to do it. At those times — again — a gentle touch can help cut through the anger. When that’s not working, I offer (gulp) to help him. We go into the room together, and this time I’ve left my iced tea elsewhere. I look over the room and help him see different areas that need to be cleaned: clothes picked up, pirate toys put away, blocks stacked, stuffed animals stuffed somewhere. Then I ask him what he’d like to clean. The choice is really important, because it gives him some sort of agency in the process.

Then I ask what he’d like me to pick up. This is usually the part that he sees as the hardest and most daunting. And then … we clean. I get down on my hands and knees and stack blocks. I collect stuffed animals while he picks up dirty clothes. I put the books on the shelves; he collects his pirate men and puts them up. Just knowing he isn’t alone helps give him the moral boost he needs to clean what is, to him, an overwhelming mess. It also shows him that you clean, so he isn’t alone in that, either.

Finally, if nothing works, I bring out the threats: “Mama has only a limited amount of time in the day, and the house needs to be clean. If you won’t help, we can’t keep what Mama can’t clean. And right now, Mama can’t clean your room. If you don’t pick up, the toys you leave will be donated to Goodwill. Not because you’re bad, not because you’re being punished, but because Mama doesn’t have time to clean them up all the time.” This usually provokes a mad scramble to begin picking up (using one of the strategies above can still help).

Your child can clean. It’s a matter of figuring out what works for your child and minimizing their sense of being overwhelmed and the work for you. After all, teaching your kid to clean is a life skill they need to know.

[How Chores Can Improve ADHD Behavior]