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Pigpen Diaries: What to Do When Clutter Is Comforting

My daughter takes solace in her mess. The junk that I would trash in a hot second is treasure to her, and cleaning it all at once is pure torture. So together we devised a compromise for bringing order (not stress) to her bedroom — one day at a time.

An illustration of the room of a messy child

I don’t know whether to face the truth, or shut the door tight. Tackle the problem — my messy child —  or keep walking. If I brave the obstacle, my efforts will take hours and I’ll have to make hard decisions. If I shut my eyes, I can hope the spiraling destruction will resolve itself.

This is the dilemma I have faced ever since my daughter moved from a crib to a regular bed — ever since she began to have free rein in her bedroom. It’s been more than 7 years and it is not getting any easier.

She has always assigned monumental sentimental value to every item her fingers ever touch, and even at 9 years old, those items still end up scattered throughout her room. Piles of gum wrappers (“But I love how shiny they are!”), old Costco receipts (“The lady drew a smiley face on it!”), my vacuum attachments and dress sashes (“I like their colors.”), and every old magazine, school assignment, and acorn she’s ever held in her hands can be found somewhere in the black hole of her bedroom.

I’ve tried everything: Spending an afternoon cleaning with her, throwing things away while she’s at school, enforcing consequences, removing all toys from her room, offering rewards, and more. But nothing works. She hasn’t yet been able to keep her room clean for more than 20 minutes.

An Important Realization

“I like having all these things around me,” she told me while I rubbed my ankle after tripping over a lonely shoe that was hiding under a blanket — which couldn’t be seen because of the pile of stuffed animals in front of it.

That’s when I realized the mess and clutter is part of her. She will always go back to it because it’s comfortable to her. She likes things — lots of things — and messes don’t bother her.

Should I give up, shut the door, and cringe whenever I walk past her room? Or should I continue to force her to fix the wreckage, causing waterfalls of tears?

I hated that these seemed to be my only two options. She deserves to learn the life skill of living (more) neatly. And as her parent, I am responsible for helping her to gain that skill.

But she thinks differently than I do. I can sweep my eyes across my room, and know immediately how to set it right. I also don’t struggle with the same types of messes she does. So I tried to crawl inside her brain and find a solution. As I accepted that she really does find comfort in messes and the accumulation of things, I began to see that we needed to approach her room from an angle that makes sense to her.

1. My Standards Are Not Her Standards

First, I realized my standards won’t be her standards — ever. But she can certainly learn to have better standards. This realization opened my mind and expelled all the “shoulds” that were clouding my judgment.

2. She Will Always Add to Her Messes

It is in her nature to create more mess. This is a fact I have to accept. She is not the type of person who will clean something and leave it that way forever. This is uncomfortable for me, but just fine for her. She needs easy techniques that allow her to stay on top of the mess.

3. Cleaning Everything Is Overwhelming

It’s just too much to expect her to clean her room in a single afternoon. And remember, I already know it’s not going to stay that way. Big bursts of cleaning are not effective. They make her feel bad about herself because she doesn’t know how to succeed — and she doesn’t know how she got to that big mess in the first place.

Her room is even overwhelming for me. And if it’s overwhelming for me to figure out where to begin, how is she supposed to do it? Instead, she needs to do small bits every day.

4. She Needs Control

She needs to have control over the decisions in her room. Not only that, she needs opportunities to feel proud of successful neatness. She won’t ever achieve neatness, or feel a sense of pride at taking care of her things, if she’s tasked with cleaning her whole room at once.

The Plan

We decided that little bursts of cleaning each day would keep things orderly (enough). So I made a rule that she is responsible for three things in her room each day:

  1. She must make her bed.
  2. She must clear her floor of trash, shoes, books, stuffed animals, and clothes.
  3. She must clean one other area of the room.

For #3, I had her write the days of the week on a piece of paper. I then gave her six areas of her room that accumulate clutter the fastest:

  1. The closet floor
  2. The dresser
  3. The bookshelf
  4. The corner by the window
  5. Under the bed
  6. The stuffed animal basket

She then chose an area to clean each day of the week, and wrote it on her paper.

Down to Specifics

I next wrote down the specific expectations for each area. For example, when she cleans under her bed, she needs to remove every. last. item. and find its home. When she cleans her dresser, she needs to arrange everything neatly, and get rid of at least two things (trash tends to accumulate there).

Now, I send her to her room after school and tell her to make sure her bed is made, her floor is cleaned, and that the one area she has chosen for that day is tidied.

Less Overwhelming

The tasks are far less overwhelming this way, and the room is much cleaner with this schedule. It also allows for messes to accumulate without me stressing about them, because I know the dresser mess will be fixed on Tuesday and the closet mess will be fixed on Thursday.

When we get busy or forget to follow the schedule, it isn’t devastating. It means she skips cleaning the bookshelf or the dresser for a week, but the rest of the room still gets attention. Overall, things improve.

A Surprising Benefit: Hyperfocus

And this method also shines a light on her ADHD superpower: hyperfocus. When she isn’t responsible for cleaning every mess of the room, she tends to hyperfocus on the smaller tasks she must accomplish. Her bookshelf gets reorganized by size or subject, her dresser is not only straightened but dusted, and she is happy. She’s cheerful while she directs her ADHD hyperfocus toward something, not having to feel guilty or overwhelmed by the rest of the room.

Happy Responsibility

She may grumble when I send her to do her three tasks, but she doesn’t fight me anymore (much). She knows what to do, how to do it, and that she is capable of completing it. She takes pride in her responsibility now.

I sat in her room one day as she began her tasks, and wondered where her list was. But she knew. She hopped over to a corner, picked up a purse, and retrieved her crinkled list from behind the purse’s resting spot. I chuckled. So she keeps the list in a random, obscure place… but at least she knows where it is. And at least the closet no longer frightens me.

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