My kid is messy. Like seriously messy. And I can’t be the only one who is raising slovenly children, despite my best efforts, can I?
In this article, I’m talking through my child’s bad habits, and (from the perspective of a parent) how I can work through this with him.
My Child is Messy
Seriously, where did this child come from? I won’t say that I am a neat freak by any means. And having three children (in addition to myself) in the home without a second parent to help with the disorder and chaos doesn’t help.
But I swear his messiness goes beyond the realm of normal messiness.
My middle child is a slob.
Not just the disorder. It’s not that he doesn’t clean his room or pick up after himself.
It is more like he is just completely unaware 100% of the fact that there is a mess, and that he played a part in making it.
Could there be something wrong with him? Like does extreme messiness indicate something?
In general, the answer is that it depends.
It depends upon a lot of factors, including the age and characteristics of the child/teenager.
I don’t purport to be a medical professional, or psychologist or counselor or anything. I’m just a tired mom with three kids.
But in my reading (and worrying), I am seeing that there are a lot of articles out there that do connect up ADHD (ADD too) and messiness. I don’t have any kids diagnosed with ADHD, but a lot of the characteristics/symptoms/hallmarks of a child with ADHD can also contribute to messiness, such as:
- hyperactivity (bouncing from thing to thing, never cleaning, making more messes because of the high energy)
- forgetfulness (was I playing with that? did you ask me to clean that up?)
- impulsive behavior (can create messes, and can result in forgotten or left behind messes)
- distractability (can’t finish any task you give him)
- weak motor skills (leading to messes left and right)
ADHD impacts the parts of the brain that handles get “get it done” tasks. These are the skills that help us make plans, organize, manage, remember, finish what we started.
A child with ADD/ADHD might struggle to get started cleaning his room (because he has no idea how to get it started, even if you’ve shown him how), he might struggle to move past the first task you give him, or he might forget that he was supposed to do it in the first place.
Does a messy child mean that the child has ADHD?
No, it doesn’t, not without other signs.
After all, a lot of what we see in children with ADHD, we also see in all kids, period.
At some point, ALL children are easily distracted. All children struggle to get organized. All children struggle to finish the tasks you give them. All kids knock things over because their bodies haven’t caught up with their brains.
Young children with immature brains don’t yet have the executive functioning in their brains to complete tasks that we can do and do as adults.
Messiness is part of being young.
Could it be a sign of something else?
I think age plays into this as well. With young children, messiness is a part of being little without a developed or mature brain. But as kids grow older, they have more executive function and more skills. They should be able to clean up after themselves.
And if they are not, you’ll want to spend some time looking at why this is the case.
First, if your child is otherwise happy, energetic, social, doing well in school, but just happens to leave stuff everywhere, there are a myriad of reasons that could be at the cause.
One, your kid could be completely clueless about her mess. Maybe this is just her, and maybe she’ll never grow out of it. And if this is the case, we’ll just hope that she meets someone in her adult life that likes to clean or doesn’t mind her messiness.
Two, your kid might think that the job of cleaning up after him or herself just isn’t his or her job. I’m not sure what we as moms do to make them think this way, but depending on what kids observe during their young years, especially if one parent handles all of the cleaning while the other parent does not, or if the children are not often called to assist, they just might not know.
Third, your child just might be really conceited and self-absorbed. He or she might not think at all about what happens to the plate when they are finished with it, or they might not care. I doubt this is the reason in most cases, but it could the answer. Your child just might not care that nothing is clean and might not care at all to do anything about it.
But what if your child isn’t happy, social, active, or doing well in school?
In some cases, extreme messiness (or other struggles to take care of one’s self) can be a sign of something more serious. If your child has no interest in cleaning up after herself (or in taking care of herself), it could be a sign of depression, or other significant mental health problems.
It could also be that your child just doesn’t have the energy to clean. This may be an attitude problem, or it could be that your child is experiencing low energy because he/she:
- eats poorly
- doesn’t sleep
- doesn’t exercise
- doesn’t have enough of a hormone he/she needs (like testosterone)
- has anemia
- has a thyroid disorder
There are tons of potential contributors to low energy/fatigue/exhaustion. I urge you to explore all the root causes if you can.
If you are finding yourself feeling concerned about the extreme messiness you are observing around your child, and you think it could be more than just normal kid messiness (and you also observe more signs that lead you to think that your child might be in need of extra help), you’ll want to reach out and talk to your doctor about it.
But if not, let’s talk about some ways to help your child with his slob ways.
Ideas to encourage your child to clean more
In the end, what we as parents want is that our children stop destroying our houses. And if they do destroy our houses, we want those same kids to clean up after themselves. Without us having to come behind them and make them do it.
But as we work towards that, we’ll have to be involved every step of the way.
First, you need to model the behavior you want to see.
Children learn from watching us. If I throw my clothing on the floor instead of in the hamper, my kids will do the same. If I leave the dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the sink, the kids will do the same. While it might not seem like the kids are getting anything out of just seeing me clean up, I would argue that their little computer brains are taking in information, and that seeing you do the work will eventually be an asset in the fight for cleanliness.
Second, you have to find a way to get them involve in the cleaning up.
I think kids should have chores, and kids should clean. I know of some parents who give their kids lots of chores, while others want their kids to just be kids, and not have to worry about the house.
Kids need to be active participants in the management of the house. They might complain a lot while cleaning or otherwise participating, but helping (and learning how to sweep, mop, vacuum, scrub toilets) is vital.
But how to get them to help without cajoling, yelling, threatening, punishing?
That, my friends, is the one million dollar question.
If you do a search, the Pinterest Moms of the internet have prepare and posted, picture schedules, cute sticker charts, checklists, and other band-aides for the chores problem to make kids happy while helping.
I’m not sure if the cutesy stuff really helps
Kids only respond for so long to rewards (such as stickers, candy, extra screen time, etc). Rewards for behavior honestly haven’t been shown to do what we want them to do, which is to create long lasting behaviors that the kid will initiate on their own.
Rewards do encourage kids to act….but the kids are focused on earning the reward, and not on the activity itself. Thus in many cases when the reward is taken away, the kids don’t follow through with what they were supposed to have learned.
Some people argue that it is better to use rewards than yell or nag. I have to think that focusing on positive behavior and acting in a kind in positive way is always better than yelling at kids and being aggressive.
But in my case….
I haven’t had good luck yet with getting my kids to clean their rooms. That being said, I have had good luck with my kids in setting firm and stable limits that my kids follow consistently without me having to stand over them to remind them.
For example, we have a house in a cul-de-sac. There’s no traffic out in front of my house, my neighbors watch for the kids, and so long as they don’t leave the cul-de-sac, I don’t have to worry about them. I have been very firm about there being a line at the end of the cul-de-sac that they cannot cross. I don’t back down at all when they try and push that limit, and 100% of the time when I see them approach that line to test the limit, I act swiftly and firmly to enforce the limit. It is for their safety, and for my peace of mind. And now, I know that I can trust them to be outside and I don’t worry about looking away from them to pull weeds or dig around in the garage.
And looking back at how I handle their bedrooms and other messes, I am not as consistent and firm about how they should handle their things in our home. Mostly because it requires SO MUCH ENERGY. It is constant, the messiness, and the stuff that is just EVERYWHERE.
I don’t honestly believe in my heart that being clean is as important as being safe from cars, and as a result, my attitude and follow-through reflects that.
Here’s what I think I need to do with my messy child.
Rather than investing in stickers or rewards, I need to look at the areas in the house that are messy (and bother me), and prioritize them. If it is the kitchen, and the bathroom, and the bedroom, I just need to pick ONE space.
Then I need to start with ONE aspect of that space. The toothbrushes, for example, end up on the floor all the time, instead of in the toothbrush holder.
Boys are disgusting. They pee all over the toilet seats and the floor. And their toothbrushes.
So thinking back to the cul-de-sac, I realize that I need to start with one thing, and focus on setting a strong limit on that one thing. Consistently be there and help remind them (without letting them off the hook or doing it for them), that the toothbrush has a place it needs to go when the teeth are clean.
And over time, as this one thing gets in their brains, I can move on to the next one.
But that won’t solve the messiness problem!
Not right away it won’t. But here’s the thing. I’m playing the long game here. In the end, when my children (especially my sons) are grown, I want to be able to release them into the world as self-sufficient young people who don’t need their mom to handle everything for them.
Case in point…I was at the dentist’s office last week and my hygienist said that she is still brushing her 12-year-old’s teeth, and then had the nerve to treat me like I was an abusive parent for not being more hands on with my kids’ teeth brushing.
The truth was, I was horrified that this well-intending mother was brushing her daughter’s teeth. Shouldn’t she have been spending all of those minutes (which turn into hours as year go by) showing her daughter how to do it for herself? Just think….if that mother had spent that time consistently every day teaching her daughter to brush those back teeth effectively, that by the time she became a teenager (and practically ready to drive), she’d be able to do it herself on her own?
If your messy kid is older…
Then you’ll have to figure out ways to set limits that make sense. If your kid is already 15 and is a slob, it won’t make sense to stand over him/her and constantly remind them about where the toothbrush goes. You might need to be more creative about how you set your limits, and how you enforce them.
And if your kid is already close to graduating high school, you might just throw up your hands and call it good, and hope against all hope that your teenager can find a way to make it in the world without you.
And if the “child” is actually an adult who is not following your house rules and expectations, then it might be time for that “child” to find some place else to live.
Perspective is key
I think for myself I need to get over the messiness, to some degree, and focus on the long term goals of what I am trying to build and grow.
What I want are some self-sufficient young people, who are strong, confident, and capable. I know that I won’t produce those kinds of adults if I am constantly nagging, frustrated, and irritable.
I also know that I won’t get there if I incentivize everything I do with them.
They need to know that chores are a part of all of our lives, and that while no one likes to do them for the most part, we all have to. Chores are an every day part of our daily routine, and will continue to be so until the kids are grown and flown.
I will work on improving my slob son’s habits by:
- Modeling the behavior I want him to exhibit
- Calling his attention to the behavior
- Picking out specific areas to work on
- Maintaining a calm yet firm demeanor
- Consistently (but calmly) demand conformity with the house rule/way of keeping the house clean (such as lifting the seat, putting away dishes, putting away the legos, etc).
This is may plan, but I understand if other parents disagree or want to tackle this issue with other solutions (chore charts, treats, etc).
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a messy kid won’t magically start cleaning in a day, a week, or a month.
But I think we’ll get there, assuming I don’t kill myself by stepping on his legos in the middle of the night.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.