Ask the Experts

Q: My Son’s Messy Bedroom Overwhelms Both of Us

A messy bedroom is an overwhelming problem for a child with ADHD who doesn’t know how or where to begin, or even what ‘clean’ looks like. Here, learn how to chunk up the task to actually get it done.

Q: “Help! My son is 8 and I have no idea where to begin when it comes to helping him organize his room. I tell him to go clean up and he just stands at the door and stares into it. I know it’s not set up right, but I don’t even know where to begin. Do you have any ideas?” — MessyRoom


Hi MessyRoom:

Since the quarantine began, organizing and cleaning bedrooms is suddenly a top priority on many of our to-do lists.

Before we dive in, I need to ask: Does your son know HOW to clean up his room? For an 8-year-old – and one with ADHD, “clean” or “organize” are often too vague. If he doesn’t understand what exactly he needs to do, or is overwhelmed by the task at hand, he’s not going to do it.

Here are a few of my favorite – and proven – tips to get your son started.

1. Take a tour of his room through his eyes: Sometimes, we don’t realize that our children aren’t cleaning and organizing their rooms the way we’d like because they simply can’t. Eliminate roadblocks by taking a tour of his room at HIS eye level. Are the dresser drawers too hard to open? Can he reach his bookshelves to return items? Does the closet door open easily enough? Is his hamper too tall? Is there enough space for everything? Once you establish what he can and cannot do, and make everything accessible for HIM, the cleaning will come much easier.

[Read: A 30-Day Organization Plan for Children]

2. Go step by step: “Please clean up your room” is a daunting task for ANYONE, but especially a young child. Break the room up into easy steps to make organizing more digestible. Try asking him to “place his toys back in the bin” or to “put the books back on the shelf.” Another way to break it down is with a hula hoop. Drop one down over a section of the room and only focus on what’s inside. Dividing up the room in these ways will not only help establish a clear starting point, but it will more clearly show progress and help him visualize what “organized” means!

3. Become the cleaning paparazzi: Hang out in his room while he’s cleaning and snap some before, during, and after photos. This way, when it comes time to clean again, you both have reference shots. Being able to visualize how the room was organized previously, and what steps it took to get there, will help when it’s time to tackle the mess again.

4. Use music as a motivator: Use music to play “Beat the Clock.” Make a quick playlist of a few favorite songs to use as a timer and tackle the room before the music stops. Alternatively, use that same playlist to set the maximum amount of time spent tidying up. Setting a time limit at the outset, even if it’s as vague as “we only have to clean until the music runs out,” gives a conclusion to what once felt like an endless task.

Good Luck!

[Read This Next: 4 Organization Projects That Spark Joy in Quarantined ADHD Brains]


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

Updated on May 26, 2020

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  1. What also helped for my son was anything that is on the floor needs a home. For example, all clothes go into the hamper and he had to help do laundry so that he saw how long it took to do laundry. Eventually, clean clothes did not end up on the floor. Also, would tackle one part of his room, like his desk would be done one day and his closet the next day.

  2. This is a great article. It hits on everything that worked for my kids when they were little. I’m just as messy/cluttered as my younger son so we both struggle together but working with small bites such as using a timer, music or area (coffee table, top of a bureau, 1 load of laundry) is easier. As toddlers they cleaned up with my directions that made it fun: find things with wheels and put them in the red bin, now find the animals and put them in the blue bin, etc. It was fun and went quickly. Every room should have a trashcan – not a tiny one…a medium one, at least – with a garbage bag in it. It’s not pretty but it’s easy. Easy and quick are what we need in life. No one wants to carry trash to the kitchen or empty cans into one bag once a week. Open shelves are also great because we ADHDers need to see things to remember them – toys, tools, bills, everything. Put lots of nice open shelves in every room. They can still look nice but get stuff off the floor. Closets and drawers are like a black hole for us. Also, as your child grows, rotate toys to keep high interest. Out of sight, out of mind. Just put a few items in a storage bin for a few months and then when they are bored or it’s a rainy day/school vacation, take those “forgotten” toys out. Mini Christmas. Some of us have too much stuff and are overwhelmed. (bedroom, kitchen, livingroom!) Do the same for yourself (books, clothes, etc). Just do your JOB (Just One Bite)! And always help each other as the article suggests. Be your son’s “body double”. Sit in the same room – chat, make suggestions, but let him put things in their “homes”. He’ll feel pride and still feel supported. It’s a daily struggle but you can do it!

  3. If a room is really messy, it can be best to take things out of the room or at put the clutter in one area so you can organize other areas and gradually put clutter away or get rid of it.

  4. I would start with making his bed as he gets up every morning. Habits are made by repeating the same sequence over and over again. So start with his bed in the mornings. Then try to get in the habit of picking things up and putting them away as soon as you’re finished using them. If you often leave laundry lying around, make sure to put it away immediately instead of putting this task off for a later time. Thank you.

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