I’ve always been a disorganized person. To put it bluntly: I’m a mess.
I never knew how to clean or organize my childhood bedroom, then dorm room, or later my apartment as an adult. That didn’t change when I got married and had kids. If anything, it made it harder, as now I had to clean up after three small children, too.
As our children grew, I found that all three had executive function deficits, just like their dad and I clearly do. It helped to know there was a reason that I was both terrible at remembering everyday things and extremely good at hyper-focusing and getting passionately involved in my work and hobbies. I was messy, creative and passionate — and my kids were the same.
But life gets complicated quickly when five people live in the same house and all of them are messy and passionate.
I threatened and yelled at my two older kids, and I’m not proud to say it usually worked. My oldest is on the autism spectrum, and he found he was happiest when his room was carefully arranged and I wasn’t nagging him. My middle child learned to do the bare minimum to avoid me bugging her.
My 8-year-old, though, wouldn’t clean her room at all. Hers was the messiest room I had ever seen, worse even than mine as a kid. And it only got worse with her home all day, every day, during remote learning.
When her room was truly out of control, I stuffed everything in trash bags, stored her toys in the closet and donated or threw away everything else. I left just a bed, a small shelf of books and her favorite blanket. I marched her upstairs to see her sparse, empty room — and instead of being upset, she hugged me and thanked me.
I knew I needed a better solution.
My daughter has an anxiety disorder, and her play therapist has talked a lot about the relationship between anxiety and executive function. How they play off each other, each worsening the other, until a child has a bottlenecking of thoughts, leading to a meltdown. I realized I frequently felt that way, too, looking at my messy house, wanting to give up.
Her therapist and I came to the conclusion that my daughter couldn’t do what I was demanding. Not yet, not without help. The process continues to evolve, but this is the plan we put into place — and it’s led to calmer days and a happier, cleaner home.
Help your child visualize clean
Executive function relates to memory, organization, and emotional regulation. It impacts all aspects of our lives, from time management to seeing the big picture to impulse control — and a lot more. If we can’t visualize what the end result will be, then how can we create an internal flow chart of steps to reach that desired result? We can’t, so we panic or ignore the problem altogether.
We realized that my 8-year-old didn’t know what a clean room even looked like, much less how to create steps for how to achieve it. So her dad and I took before-and-after pictures of her room, her shelves, and her floor. We created a series of short, basic lists to help chunk each task.
Visual cues, like the photos we use, can help children understand larger, broader concepts by offering clear, easy-to-grasp outcomes. This is useful for all kids, from toddlers, who have minimal executive functioning due to their age, to older children and teens with ADHD, ASD and anxiety.
Many parents also find that simplified lists make a big difference. We keep our lists short and highly specific, with each task manageable within a small amount of time. This helps our daughter avoid feeling overwhelmed, which prevents her from melting down.
For example, we have a bedroom checklist with small photos:
1. Are all your dirty clothes put in the laundry basket?
2. Are all your stuffed animals lined up along the wall and super cute?
3. Are your Barbies in their house, with all their toys and clothes in the bin next to it?
4. Are your books on the shelf in a neat pile?
My husband and I stopped nagging her and reminded each other that this wasn’t purposeful behavior on her part. Once the lists and photos were posted, we modeled the chore while connecting it to the photo.
“When you teach a life skill, first you show them how to do it, then you do it with them, then they do it themselves,” says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a parent educator and author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.”
We began to create a routine using these visual cues. As we practiced, she got better about doing it on her own. Once we had that routine down, new routines (like helping to load the dishwasher or cleaning up Legos in the basement) became a possibility.
I’ve started to break daily tasks down into small, manageable chunks for myself, too. For example: I sort everyone’s clothes into individual baskets without folding anything, then they take the baskets to their rooms and handle the rest. It’s one doable job that I can complete in 10 minutes, instead of letting the pile sit and grow for days or even weeks.
Don’t expect perfection
I had to let go of the idealized, magazine photo of a child’s bedroom. I didn’t have the bandwidth to work and parent and also clean our house every day. I adjusted my expectations and tried not to see every little mess as an act of defiance or a sign of my poor parenting.
“A stray backpack or bowl left on the counter is part of the learning process, not a signal that it’s failing,” Lewis says. “Try to see slip-ups as a diagnostic tool — your child needs more time or training or a better reminder system.”
Lewis asks parents to see their children as a learners — young people on the path to organization.
Other parents have found their own strategies to help themselves and their kids stay more organized: minimizing clutter, working together with their kids to come up with child-led organization systems or even giving up on the idea of a clean bedroom altogether.
“My best trick by far is using cubbies with fabric bins instead of a dresser. We label each one with chalk — short-sleeve shirts, long pants, sweaters, etc. — as specifically as we can,” says Cara Lindsey Foran, whose 11-year-old has ADHD. Foran was diagnosed with ADHD herself in her forties, and it’s helped her to tune in to both her and her daughter’s needs.
Organization hacks like this have helped me, too. Finding what works for you as a family is more important than achieving a picture-perfect bedroom, and what makes sense to one child might not work as well for another.
The hardest, most important lesson for me as a parent was also the simplest: Stay calm. When I controlled my emotions, my daughter more easily controlled hers. Our fears and frustrations impact our parenting, especially when we see our own struggles mirrored in our kids. But when emotions run high, we panic our kids, too.
“Breathe. Take a step back. Ask what is really being harmed,” Lewis says. “Figure out what works for you to manage your anger, frustration or whatever emotions are coming up.”
She suggests finding your own parenting mantra. I particularly like this one: My child is their own person. They’re learning. They don’t have to be perfect. The way they are today isn’t how they’ll be forever.