Guest Blogs

“My House Will Never Be Clean”

A mom can dream, but when raising three children with ADHD, a “little bit less messy” is the ultimate goal in her house.

I have three sons, ages eight, six, and four. We know the older two have ADHD, and we suspect the younger one does based on various markers: a horrific screen obsession, episodes of hyperfocus, forgetfulness beyond the norm, choice paralysis. Also genetics. Since everyone else in the family has it, his chances of having it are pretty high. That means I have three ADHD children. Three of them.

A non-ADHD child can wreak on a playroom in 10 minutes. Multiply it by three, and add ADHD. My house, regularly, looks like Hurricane Small People blew through, leaving errant LEGO shards, scattered books and costumes, and cut-up paper and scissors in its wake.

By sheer force of will, and whittling the number of items down to almost nothing, I force them to keep their room clean. As for the rest of the house? There’s a half-finished dino dig kit on my kitchen table, open scissors, and shredded construction paper in my hall. Someone decided to start a plastic soldier battle, complete with wooden block breastworks, and abandoned it, because, well, of their ADHD.

It drives me bonkers. That is a nice way of saying it. I have ADHD and require order to operate at full capacity. Otherwise, I am distracted by the mess, the toys everywhere. Mess makes me feel angry and stressed out. But I can’t clean it all up. I have a life, and, as my mother always said, I am not a maid.

So they have to clean.

They do not want to clean.

Part of ADHD means having low motivation to do things that you don’t really want to do. Cleaning, of course, falls under this description for my children. They hate cleaning. It bores them. “The playroom is a mess,” I’ll tell them. “You need to pick it up.” And they lose it, because they utterly hate cleaning.

[Free Resource: 10 Ways to Get Organized This Weekend]

Unlike other kids, they have trouble motivating themselves to plow past the hate. I offer to pay them. It doesn’t help — and they are as avaricious as other small children. I threaten to take away their toys. They will cross their arms and ask, “Which ones?” I threaten to take away their privileges, their TV, or the video game they’re allowed to play. They shrug. Extrinsic motivation, positive or negative, doesn’t work.

Sometimes, I can get them cleaning, usually at the behest of my oldest, who’s the most eager to please. But then there’s the distraction factor: I ask them to handle their toys, but not to play with them. To pick them up, but not to mess around with them. They’ll start picking up. But five minutes later, they’re playing. “If you start playing, I will take a toy away!” I’ll tell them. They will gleefully say their brother was playing and offer up one of his favorites. It doesn’t work that way, I say.

Even if I get them cleaning, even if I stand over them and stop them from playing, there’s the whole omg-the-mess-is-big-and-so-tall-Cat-in-the-Hat conundrum. Normal people, and medicated children with ADHD, look at a mess and divide the room into quadrants, or into items, or into categories. My kids can’t do that. They are at sea in a vast ocean of stuff, and the idea of cleaning it is so overwhelming they don’t know where to begin.

So I have lowered my goals. I accept that my house will never be clean. Instead of “Clean up the playroom,” I have to say, “Pick up the costumes.” Then in a few hours, I say, “I need you to put the LEGO away.” When they’re having real trouble, I have to stand there with them, get down and help, sing a clean-up song.

It’s not the cleaning I envisioned when I had kids. It’s not what I wanted. It’s not what I want. But my sons have ADHD. They are the sons I have, and they are perfect. So we do what we can. In the end, it has to be enough.

[The Messy Bedroom (and Backpack and Locker) Cure for Kids with ADHD]