Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, my kids’ rooms resemble a frat house. But instead of empty beer cans and pizza boxes, my kids have 10 water bottles and half-eaten peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches scattered throughout their space. Two of my three kids, ages 12 and 15 (twins), have always found it challenging to be organized, but spending more time at home has exacerbated their struggles.
I know that parents have complained about their kids’ messy rooms forever. But in this pandemic, with no sports, no events, no trips and no in-person schooling, shouldn’t easy household chores be – easier?
But, of course, nothing about living through a pandemic is easy. And experts say the unstructured, unscheduled world kids are living in now actually can make it harder to carry out the tasks they may have at least grudgingly done in pre-covid times.
“When you are doing activities and going to school, your chores are time-limited. When you are at home, there is always something to do. It’s almost never-ending. It feels pointless. I’m doing this now, and it’s going to be there again to be done in an hour. It’s like a never-ending loop,” says Sonya Belletti, a clinical social worker in Coral Springs, Fla.
The fear and lingering uncertainty brought on by the pandemic also could exacerbate an issue that keeps kids from doing their chores in the best of times, says Belletti, who thinks that when children avoid chores it may be related to trying to gain a sense of control. “Children don’t get very many empowering moments,” she says.
So how do you help kids who are having a hard time? I asked Belletti and other experts for their advice.
– Think about your messaging. “As adults, we grew up thinking chores were onerous. We feel oppressed by the amount of time we have to spend. And so we’re resentful as adults, as parents, of how much work it takes,” says Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” And if we convey that resentment to our kids, she says, we can’t expect them to feel any better about chores.
Instead, explain why chores matter. Alyse Bone, clinical mental health counselor at Dandelion Family Counseling in Charlotte, N.C., suggests explaining that when you are organized you are better able to find things and feel less frustrated. “When things are clean, it makes you feel good inside.”
Markham suggests explaining to your kids that chores are important because that is how you show respect and contribute to your family.
– Let kids have a say. Family meetings can be a time to discuss which household tasks need to be done, who will complete each one, why chores are important and what your expectations are. “When you allow your child to pick their chore, they feel more collaborative, it helps the child feel included, since they decided on this chore,” Bone says.
– Focus on time, not tasks. Yuzu Sasaki Byrne, a professional organizer specializing in ADHD in Chicago, recommends the Pomodoro technique, making the chore time-limited instead of focusing on task completion. “Try spending five minutes cleaning your desk and see how much you can get done in that time-frame,” she says.
For kids, you can use a timer to let them know that they’ve been cleaning their room for an hour, Bone says. This can help them to feel less overwhelmed.
– Be present. For kids who are really struggling with focus, Sasaki Byrne recommends a technique intended for kids with ADHD: the body double. The term, coined by ADHD coach Linda Anderson, refers to how your presence can serve as a physical anchor for the distracted child, as well as a source of calm while they perform a task. “Your presence helps them to focus,” Sasaki Byrne says.
– Do your chores together. When parents do chores with their children, they can create a sense of community while modeling responsible behaviors. “When we create a team for our family, kids will feel pride in their contribution,” Markham says.
She recommends playing music and having a positive attitude. “At the end you savor it so they see everything’s cleaned up and you say, ‘Let’s take a minute, let’s turn off the music and just enjoy the room for a moment.’ You’re making it a fun conversation about how everything has transformed, and they did it with your assistance,” she said. If your child is having trouble maintaining a clean room, offer to be their assistant. “That removes the power struggle. If your house is a mess, you wouldn’t want somebody come in and say, ‘Do this, do that.’ You would love it if someone you trusted wouldn’t judge you and said, ‘Hey want me to be your assistant for an hour?’ “
– Make your expectations clear. Bone says that one reason kids may struggle with chores is that parents may not have shown them exactly how to do the chore effectively. “Clean your room” may seem like an obvious task, but have you explained your definition of “clean”? “In their mind, all the clothes on the floor, and everything that’s scattered everywhere is clean and organized to them. Because they know where everything is at,” she said.
A lack of clarity – and the inevitable faults parents find with the results – can make kids less willing to do the work out of fear of failure, Markham says. “Sometimes kids feel like it’s hard to do a good enough job or that they won’t please their parents,” she says.
Don’t give up. As much as it might be easier to take the garbage out yourself or put their dirty dishes in the sink, you won’t be doing your kids any favors. “I think that chores are super important. It is an opportunity for kids to learn life skills and foster a sense of community. Their family is their first experience of a community,” says Sasaki Byrne.
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Maguire holds a master of counseling psychology degree.