Ask the Experts

Q: “Does My Child Really Not See Her Messy Room as Messy?”

Your child’s room is cluttered with piles of laundry, art projects, and paper. You ask her to clean it, and she becomes confused. Does she really not see the mess? Or is she just avoiding chores?

messy bedroom - Directly above view of teen girl's messy bedroom with blanket, sneakers and school books scattered on carpet
Directly above view of teen girl messy bedroom with blanket, sneakers and school books scattered on carpet

Q: “Why must my daughter re-arrange her furniture in the bedroom and playroom constantly? Meanwhile there are persistent mounds of paper, junk, used stuff, clothes strewn everywhere that she doesn’t see? She carries on like it doesn’t exist. When asked to clean it, she gets almost confused. We get into daily arguments where she insists ‘I cleaned it’ when clearly it is not clean. If I organize it, she is happy for a moment but it’s as if her brain can’t handle the organization like that. She had to destroy it within an hour. It’s almost as if she needs to rearrange to make sense to her little brain. I feel I need to teach her balance in order to live a healthy life in society, and this is not it.” – Itty’sMomma

Hi Itty’sMomma:

When I first started my education as an academic/life coach, I was taught that how a person “learns” or processes information is directly related to how they “organize.” Let me explain.

Every person, including children, learns in a slightly different way. Some people like visual prompts; others need to hear instructions; and others need to perform the act to lay down the learning. There is never one right tactic or answer. The important takeaway is that, while you’ve developed organizing methods that clearly work for you, that doesn’t mean they are going to work for someone else. You hit the nail on the head when you said that your daughter’s brain can’t handle the way you organize her environment.

Therefore, if you truly want to “teach her balance in order to live a healthy life,” you must understand how she learns best so she can develop systems and strategies to organize her space and stuff in a way that works best for her!

The best way to find out how she learns best is two-fold. First, take a step back and observe what seems to be working well for her in other areas of her life and build from there. Look for clues! Does she color-code her school supplies? Does she prefer open shelving so that she can see all her stuff?

[Read: Less Messy in 30 Days!]

Next, ask her questions that will bring solutions to light. Start with, “What system might work best for YOU?” If she needs to see her stuff so she knows it exists, then remove her closet door! If folding clothes isn’t her thing, replace the dresser with bins where she can toss t-shirts, jeans, socks, and underwear easily. If she detests hanging up clothes on hangers, ditch the rod in the closet and put up hooks.

It’s also important that your daughter is crystal clear as to what “clean your room” really means. You mention that you both argue over each other’s interpretation of what “clean your room” means. And that’s because it’s too vague for her. Try these specific directions instead:

  • Books on the bookshelf
  • Clothes on the floor in the hamper
  • Dirty dishes to the kitchen
  • Trash to the outside bin
  • School supplies on the desk

You get the idea. You need to ask if she understands exactly what you’re asking her to do and if she knows how to do it. Step-by-step instructions and visual prompts will also help her to remember what she needs to accomplish. Want to have some fun with it? Take photos of her doing each step and post those so she sees how to move through her routine.

[Click to Read: What to Do When Clutter Is Comforting]

In addition, here are two rules of thumb I follow with my young clients:

  1. Clear is king. In other words, if she can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Clear bins and baskets in her bedroom and playroom that are clearly labeled will give her a natural way to receive visual reminders of the physical locations of all her stuff.
  2. If it takes more than two steps… your daughter most likely won’t do it. Think un-fussy and streamlined. Take a tour of your child’s room using her height as your guide. Can she open the closet door easily? Reach the rod and shelves? Are the dresser drawers too hard to open? Is the dresser crammed full? And don’t forget about shelving. Is there enough space for books, memorabilia? Eliminate any roadblocks.

And if you are looking for more information on learning styles, I invite you to check out a previous column of mine.

Good Luck!

Messy Room Help: Next Steps

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!

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.