Ask the Experts

Q: “Are My Kids’ Messy Rooms a Sign of Laziness or Weak Executive Functioning Skills?”

“Requests like ‘clean your room’ or ‘organize your closets’ may be too vague for kids with weak executive functioning skills and ADHD to understand. Instead, break directions down into bite-sized, manageable tasks that leave no room for misinterpretation.”

A very messy bedroom that is in need of a through cleaning and organization effort.
A very messy bedroom that is in need of a through cleaning and organization effort.

Q: “I’m guilty of spoiling my kids. When it comes to cleaning their bedrooms, organizing their closets, and putting away toys or school supplies, I’ve always been by their side, helping — or doing the work. Now that they are 11 and 14, I realize my actions have been unhelpful. If I tell them to ‘clean the basement’ or ‘clean your room,’ they get so overwhelmed that it never gets done. How can I teach them to be more self-reliant? I need to stop coddling them, and they need help knowing what to do.” — MomGuilt

Hi MomGuilt:

I’m thrilled to be answering your question as we spend a lot of time in our Order Out of Chaos community discussing how best to support and scaffold our children with ADHD and executive function challenges.

To truly understand what challenges your daughters may be facing, you need to understand the concept of “executive age,” which is a person’s age based on how their brain works. Individuals — especially children — with executive dysfunction are, on average, approximately 30% behind their peers in executive age. Though your daughters are 11 and 14, their executive ages might be 8 and 10 ½, respectively, if they have organization, activation, or working memory challenges. Just because they are “old enough” to perform the tasks you described doesn’t mean they have the skill set to do so.

You ask how you can help your daughters be more self-reliant. My answer is two-fold.

Improve Executive Functioning Skills by Going Beyond “Clean Your Room”

First, ask yourself if your daughters understand what you want them to do and if they know how to do it. Requests like “clean your messy room” or “organize your closet” may be too vague for them to truly know what it is you are asking them to do. I always tell parents that a request with more than one interpretation is too overwhelming for their child’s brain. The more you ask them to figure out, the more bogged down with decisions they will be, and therefore, the less likely they will be to activate on their own.

So, you need to be as clear as you can with your instructions. Break them down into bite-sized, manageable tasks that leave no room for misinterpretation. What does that look like? Instead of “clean your room,” try these specific directions:

  • Place books on the bookshelf
  • Move clothes from the floor to the laundry hamper
  • Bring laundry hamper to the laundry room
  • Bring dirty dishes to the kitchen sink
  • Put dirty dishes in the dishwasher
  • Take trash to the outside bin
  • Put school supplies on the desk

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD? Symptom Test for Kids]

You get the idea. Step-by-step instructions and visual prompts will help your daughters remember what they need to accomplish. Want to have some fun with it? Take photos of them doing each step and post those, so they can see how to move through the tasks.

Solve a Messy Room by Understanding Learning Styles

Second, ensure that the organizing system you’re employing works for your daughters. Every person 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 organizing methods that work for you may not work for your daughters.

To truly teach your daughters self-reliance, you must understand how they learn best, so they can develop systems and strategies to organize their space and stuff in a way that works for them!

To do so, first, take a step back, observe what seems to be working well for them in other areas of their lives, and build from there. Look for clues! Do they color-code their school supplies? Do they prefer open shelving so that they can see all their stuff?

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

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

3 Parenting Tips to Scaffold Executive Functioning Skills

Here are three rules of thumb I follow with my young clients who have weak executive functioning skills:

  1. Clear is king. In other words, what they can’t see doesn’t exist. Well-labeled, clear bins and baskets in their bedrooms and the basement will give your daughters a natural way to receive visual reminders regarding the physical locations of all their stuff.
  2. Take a tour of their rooms through their eyes: Sometimes, we don’t realize that our children with ADHD aren’t cleaning and organizing their spaces the way we’d like because they simply can’t. Eliminate roadblocks by taking a tour of their rooms at their eye level. Are the dresser drawers too hard to open? Can they reach the bookshelves? Does the closet door open easily? Is there enough space for everything? Once you establish what they can and cannot do and make everything accessible for them, the cleaning will come much easier.
  3. Use music as a motivator: Use music to play “Beat the Clock,” a game where children can earn rewards or prizes by accomplishing set goals in a specific amount of time. Make a quick playlist of a few favorite songs to use as a timer and have them tackle either their room or a designated space before the music stops.

Good Luck!

Messy Room with ADHD: 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!

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