This week’s question is from Teresa,
“My 10-year-old daughter can create huge messes, not only in her room but also in every room in her house, from the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom. She moves from one thing to the next so quickly that I could spend my whole day cleaning up after her.
I get that she has executive functioning problems associated with her ADHD, learning challenges, and trauma issues. However, even when reminded or when help is offered, she is extremely resistant and does everything from ignoring the request to refusing to completely flee the situation.
Even when I try the “When/Then” strategy, it can turn into a huge battle to try to get her to accomplish the clean-up that she’s more than capable of.
And most of the time, I offer to help and/or get her started. Is there a better way to hold her accountable for the messes she makes? I’ve tried doing clean-up several times a day so it’s smaller, but the resistance is the same. We’ve tried talking when she’s in good spirits about how when everyone helps, we have more time for fun stuff together, but she just doesn’t seem to get it, and it’s really wearing on me. Help.”
In this episode, I provide proactive strategies, executive function skills strategies, and some reactive strategies for how to address this kind of situation. I hope parents everywhere will find these strategies to be helpful.
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What the parents and teachers notice
- The child makes a huge mess all throughout the house
- Executive function challenges associated with ADHD and trauma
- This is a chronic issue that affects the entire household
- Resists any request to help clean up even though she’s capable of it
What is executive function?
- Higher-level problem-solving skills that develop later in childhood
- Time awareness, time estimation, problem-solving, organizing activities and belongings
Use clear communication
- Use some non-judgemental language about what you notice
- “This isn’t working, every day we have this issue it doesn’t feel good to you or me, we need a new plan”
- “I know that it can be really hard to put things away”
- “I wonder if you might feel overwhelmed at the mess”
- “Here’s how other kids feel when they have to clean up”
- Explain how you feel in a non-shameful way
- Talk about a plan for what you’ll both do if she gets upset while helping to clean up
- Limit what’s available for them to take out and play with until they can manage the mess and cleanup better
- Box up some of the toys and games with several pieces
- Lock bathroom cabinets
- Determine areas for certain toys and activities
- This area is for art only, this area is for games only, etc.
Building executive function skills
- Practice sessions with making messes and cleaning them up
- Practice time awareness by “beating the clock”
- Experiment with timing the cleanup exercise
- Have your child estimate how long they think it might take
- Take photos of a messy room
- Provide ideas of how you can clean up the mess by looking at the photo together
- Work this in when they are calm and regulated
- If you and/or your child is too worked up, pause and come back to it later
- Try cleaning up part of the mess and have them clean up just a small portion of it
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Executive function … 00:03:30
Clear communication … 00:4:45
Proactive strategies … 00:11:30
Building executive function skills … 00:15:00
Reactive strategies … 00:22:10
Episode Wrap up … 00:26:20
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from a listener.
I get so many questions each week, and this is a great way to provide answers that many of you might find helpful.
If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question. This question is from Teresa, and she writes:
“My 10-year-old daughter can create huge messes, not only in her room but also in every room in her house, from the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom. She moves from one thing to the next so quickly that I could spend my whole day cleaning up after her.
I get that she has executive functioning problems associated with her ADHD, learning challenges and trauma issues. However, even when reminded or when help is offered, she is extremely resistant and does everything from ignoring the request to refusing to completely flee the situation.
Even when I try the “When/Then” strategy, it can turn into a huge battle to try to get her to accomplish the clean up that she’s more than capable of.
And most of the time, I offer to help and/or get her started. Is there a better way to hold her accountable for the messes she makes. I’ve tried doing clean-up several times a day so it’s smaller, but the resistance is the same. We’ve tried talking when she’s in good spirits about how when everyone helps, we have more time for fun stuff together, but she just doesn’t seem to get it, and it’s really wearing on me. Help.”
Well, Teresa, great question. Something that I think many parents deal with. Clean up can be a struggle for lots of kids, whether they have a diagnosis or not. But what I hear you saying here is that this has become a really chronic issue that is creating a lot of stress and frustration. Not only for you, but for your child and your entire family. So, it’s good that you’re acknowledging that something needs to happen with this because when issues like this become chronic, and especially when there are things like cleaning up that need to happen pretty much each and every day.
When we don’t address these things, they can really start to grow and fester in us. And we can develop a lot of resentment and hostility and frustration and those kinds of not-so-pleasant feelings towards our child and towards life in general. So I think it’s really good that you’re recognizing that, “You know what? Something needs to shift here.”
So let’s let’s start with the big picture of what’s probably going on here. It’s likely several things.
The first thing is that you brought up that your daughter has executive function challenges. It’s important that you understand that and you’re saying “Yup, I get it. She has trouble with that”, and you seem to have some understanding of where those things stem from, and that’s important.
And for people who aren’t aware, those executive function challenges, executive functions are higher-level thinking and regulating and problem-solving skills that tend to develop later in child development. So we don’t expect young kids to have good executive function skills, they develop those as they get older and move towards adulthood, and even we now know that those executive functions in the frontal lobe of the brain continue to develop even through late adolescence, early adulthood into the mid-twenties.
So these are things that include abilities like time awareness and time estimation, problem-solving, planning, being able to organize activities, belongings, those kinds of things.
Also, emotion regulation issues seem to be an issue here for this child. Managing the feelings around being done with something, managing the feelings around having to do something you don’t want to do.
Maybe even dealing with the feelings around knowing that you’ve created a problem or that somebody is stressed or frustrated with you.
So, several things here, probably in the realm of executive function as well as emotional regulation and then behavioral regulation issues.
So those areas. When we think about how to approach this, we want to take all those things into account. The first thing that I think is important is to have some clear communication about this and to approach it through the lens of problem solving. This is clearly not an issue that is going to be addressed by just behavioral strategies of providing consequences or punishments.
I’m sure that Teresa has tried all of that as most parents have, you know, “If you don’t clean up, this is going to happen/You’re not going to be able to do x, y or z until you clean up.”
And while those strategies can work for some kids, we’re talking here about a child for whom those strategies are not working. They’re not carrying over from one time to the next. It’s sort of becoming a Groundhog’s Day situation, right? Where it’s like the same thing over and over and there isn’t progression or learning or carryover from one time to the next, so we’re going to need to take more of a problem-solving approach here.
How can we get at the root of things that are actually creating this issue? So we’re going to start with communication, and this is a 10-year-old, who based on everything that Teresa says, has verbal communication skills, is able to process having communication about this. So I’m going to encourage starting with some communication, clearly.
Just clear, firm, but supportive communication that might sound something like
“Hey, this isn’t working. Every day we’re having the same problem. I’ve noticed that whenever it’s time to clean up, this is a real challenge and it doesn’t feel good to you or to me. So we’re going to need a new plan.”
That’s a great way to open this up. It’s not saying anything about the child, it’s not placing blame, it’s just a parent being clear that
“You know what? Here’s what I’ve observed, and this isn’t working for either of us, so we need to do something different” and I think that’s a good way to open the discussion and also to recognize that this is not working for your child either, clearly.
No kid wants to be having these kinds of issues all the time. So it’s not working for either of us. So what can we do? Talking about the feelings that are involved. Now, sometimes kids, especially kids like Teresa described her daughter here, are not very attuned to their inner emotional experiences or maybe aren’t able to communicate about them for whatever reason. So as adults, we may want to offer some suggestions about what we think is going on there about how she might be feeling and also talking about how you as the parent are feeling. So when it comes to her feelings, saying something like,
“Gosh, I know that it can be really hard to put things away when you really like playing with them.” or “I wonder if it might feel really overwhelming or you might feel really stressed out when you look around the room and there are so many things out there. And you might feel like ‘Ugh, I am going to be here forever putting all these things away!’, maybe you feel that way.”
Or sometimes another way I’ll approach this with kids is saying,
“You know? Here is how some other kids feel when this happens. Some kids might feel like they don’t want to stop what they’re doing to clean up, that feels unfair to them. Or some kids might feel really frustrated that there are all these things and it’s going to take too long.”
So these are a couple of ways that you can raise these issues of what the child might be feeling in these circumstances. Now, when you do this, the child doesn’t need to agree. You don’t need them to say, “Oh yup, that’s exactly how I feel”, you’re just putting some things out there, saying, “I wonder if this is what’s going on.”
Now, certainly, if your child can readily communicate what they’re experiencing, that’s great because then you can address it. If you say
“I wonder how you’re feeling about this” or “I wonder what feelings are coming up for you?” And they say, “I really hate cleaning up because it feels like it takes forever!” Okay, great. Now we can address that.
But you have a way of sort of delving into it, even if they are not communicative or forthcoming about how they’re feeling.
So the first part is we’re going to clearly communicate: This is not working for us, we need a new plan. Then you’re going to delve into a bit about how they might be feeling, then you’re going to talk about how you’re feeling. As a parent, you might say, “Ugh. I feel so frustrated when I walk into a room and see that all of this stuff is out, and then when I ask for help in cleaning it up, you run away or you yell at me. That feels so frustrating to me.”
Again, this isn’t judgment, this is just being clear. I have feelings about this too, as an adult. Or you might say, “I feel so sad when you say that you hate me and run out of the room and slam the door.” Again, you’re talking about how you as the parent are feeling in that situation. So I’m going to talk about how you’re feeling, and then you say,
“We need to figure out a plan for how we’re going to do this differently.”
Now, if you have a child who can engage in the process with you, thinking of some ideas of
“What could we do? Let’s make a list. How could we address this?”
Great. Have your child help you think of all the different things that might be appropriate or that would be worth trying. And some kids might have some suggestions or ideas to offer. If your child doesn’t, you can still do this piece of it by saying,
“I want to hear your ideas of things that you think could work” and if they say “I don’t have any ideas!/I’m not talking to you about it/I don’t care!” You say, “No problem. I have some ideas of things that I think we could try.” And then you’re going to come prepared to that discussion, obviously with one or two or maybe even three things that you think could be helpful and you can throw those out there.
You could say, “I thought of these two ideas, I’m wondering which one you like better.” Or “Let’s pick which one we’re going to try first.” And you see if you can involve your child in some problem solving thinking with you around that and coming up with a plan of what you want to try. Ultimately, if they’re not going to engage in that with you, just say, “No problem, I get it. This is tough. This feels like a lot to you, I’m going to help both of us out and here is the plan that we’re going to try.” And you just put it out there and you keep moving with it. So this initial step is this communication and setting this foundation of “We’re going to approach this in a problem-solving way.”
Now, I want to get into three specific areas that I think can be helpful from a strategy standpoint for those of you who are dealing with an issue like this.
Let’s talk about proactive strategies first
So proactive strategies are things that we do on the front end to try to limit or prevent the problem. So here with Teresa’s daughter, we have this issue of her getting into all kinds of things. From Teresa’s email, I just picture sort of this whirling dervish going through the house and having so many curiosities and getting into so many things and all of the stuff falling over, right? So we want to think about how we can be proactive to limit that problem.
So the first proactive strategy would be:
Limit what’s available to get out. This could look like limiting the number of toys or activities or things that are available. If it’s a child getting into things in the bathroom, for example, maybe soaps, cosmetics, things like that, it’s limiting what they’re able to have access to. Removing things from the area, keeping things in higher cabinets, maybe even keeping things in locked areas.
You’re looking at how can I help my child be more successful with not creating these huge messes and how can I limit what’s accessible?
So that’s one proactive strategy.
Another would be containing kids activities to a particular area: So that might look like having toys or games available just in one particular room, or having rules or really talking about expectations of what can be done in different spaces of the house and really limiting to those particular areas. That can be a helpful proactive strategy. And a way that I like to approach that with kids is saying,
“We will be able to have more things available. You can use these things in more places as you’re successful with managing the responsibility of that.”
So that’s not blaming, it’s not threatening, it’s not punishing. It’s just saying “Hey, as you get better at this, as you’re better able to manage your use of things and take care of things, then we’ll be able to have more options and use them in more places. Sort of showing like, “Here’s what needs to happen, and also here’s what’s possible.” So those are some proactive strategies and with a child like this, I would really get rid of — temporarily at least, things that create huge messes.
So I’m thinking of games that have a million pieces, or like a huge bucket of marbles or cosmetics out in the bathroom. With a child like this, you really want to be proactive and just get rid of that stuff for now. Put it in boxes in the garage or basement, leave it at grandma’s, lock it up, whatever you need to do. But really, you want to minimize the amount of stuff that can end up all over the place. So really be intentional about what games, activities and materials are out.
So those are proactive strategies. Kind of in the realm of proactive strategies but in the realm of practicing skills, let’s talk about several strategies for building executive function skills and emotional tolerance and regulation, because that’s a really big root issue here, we think with this child – just having the thinking skills, the strategies, the emotional regulation capabilities to manage this.
So here are some ways that you can intentionally practice and work on this. The first is to intentionally have practice sessions with making messes and cleaning them up. Starting with really small things that can be quick and very successful. So maybe it’s placing a 20-piece puzzle out or a small box of crayons or markers or something like that and saying, “Okay. We are going to make a mess with this and then we are going to see how quickly we can clean it up. So we are going to dump these crayons out right here on the floor, and then we’re going to see how long it takes for us to put them back in the box. You can work together on it, you can kind of turn it into a game, but you’re working around this idea of practicing with making messes, cleaning them up, having it be successful and teaching the skills and strategies around how we think about this.
How do we manage the time, how do we organize this task and also really linking it to success. This child is not successful and it turns into a huge ordeal when there are 27 things all over the living room that need to be cleaned up. So creating success around, “Oh, look, I made this little mess, I can clean it up quickly and move along. Awesome.”
So you want to think about how many practice sessions do we need today? Involve your child in that. “How many do we think we need? Let’s see, it’s a Saturday. Maybe we’ll do three little practices.” You can provide some incentives around that if that’s helpful for the child but you’re building in these intentional mess making and then supporting to clean it up to keep it successful. You can experiment with timing it. Again, as I said, you can turn it into a game: “Let’s try to beat the clock. How long did it take us?”
Also a great way to start to build time awareness and time estimation skills is having a child estimate, at the start, how long do we think this is going to take? And then actually timing it and saying, “Okay, how long did it actually take?” So there might be a mess and you say, “How long do we think it’ll take to clean it up, and even if the child doesn’t make an estimate, you can say, “I think it’s going to take 5 minutes.” and you say, “Okay, let’s start the timer.” and then you document at the end, “Oh, wow. I thought it would take 5 minutes. That actually only took two and a half minutes.” Or “Wow, I said 5 minutes, but that took 10 minutes to clean up.”
You can do this with lots of activities, but specifically with thinking about the executive functions about cleaning up messes. This is a great way to build in that time awareness and accuracy with that, where kids feel like “I’m going to be here all day.” Well, actually, this only took 30 seconds to clean up or this only took five minutes. So you can build in the time awareness piece. And again, keeping it light, making a game out of it, beat the clock, let’s try to beat our record. “Wow, last time, when we cleaned up the family room, it took us 13 minutes. Do we think we can beat our record today? Let’s see! Can we do it in 12 minutes and 30 seconds? How long do you think it might take?” So kind of turning it into a game like that can help with the emotions behind it as well.
You can also practice these skills by taking photos of messy rooms. And I would recommend, take photos of the actual messes that happen around your house and then instead of actually cleaning it up, use those at a different time when she is regulated, in a good mood, you have some time to do this and say, “Okay, hey, I took this picture. Let’s make a step-by-step plan of how we would clean this up. Let’s look at this.”
And you will need to provide lots of ideas and talk through this and make the plan initially, but the goal is that kids get better and better at building these skills for planning, for organizing, for sequencing these kinds of things. “What would you pick up first? Gosh, in this picture, I see a lot of games, I see art supplies, I see stuffed animals, I see legos.
Let’s see. If I was going to clean this up, I would put all the lego’s in the bin first because that feels really easy, and I want to get that done first. So you can model that and you can say “What would you clean up next? Oh, you would do all the stuffed animals next. Okay, so you do all the stuffed animals. Where would you put those?” And you can be writing down the plan.
Again, this helps kids to build the skills in their mind for how to approach and think about these tasks. For those of us who this stuff comes easy to, this seems kind of silly to have to do this, right? You think, well, you should just be able to do this. But for kids with these executive function challenges, these things are not second nature. These things don’t come easy, they don’t think about these things in efficient, organized ways.
So we have to teach the skills. So taking a photo of a messy room, it can be of the actual mess in your house, it can be a messy room that you find on the internet, whatever you want to do and then making a plan. Then the practice with time, estimating.
So these are all some really concrete practices that you can do. And again, you’re going to work this in on a consistent basis. You can’t just do this in the heat of the moment where your child is overwhelmed, you’re frustrated and you need to get the living room cleaned up.
You build this in at times where you and your child have a few extra minutes to really think about this and work through this.
So we’ve covered some proactive strategies, we’ve covered some strategies around actually practicing to build these executive function skills, and the other thing I should say in that realm is when we’re doing these kinds of practice sessions, we’re also building emotional tolerance.
There is some discomfort around having to clean things up, around doing something that you don’t want to do, right? You say, “Ugh, I know, it is so fun to get all this stuff out and it is so not fun to have to put it all away, right?” We can acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings that come up in these kinds of situations. We can work on the tolerance by starting with small messes and building up or stretching their tolerance for just managing and feeling the discomfort of that and then seeing that they can get through it. So that’s the other piece that we are working on there in terms of that emotional tolerance.
We can also teach some skills in those practice sessions if we’re feeling really overwhelmed or stressed out or really frustrated or really mad, what can we do? And you can talk about that even beforehand. If we’re cleaning this mess up in the bathtub and one of us feels really angry or really frustrated or feels really sad, what can we do? And you can walk through that and come up with some ideas. We can take a break, we can hit pause, we can stop our timer that we’re using and we can go and get a drink of water and take some deep breaths, or we can listen to a song or maybe we can turn on some music that we like and you can talk about what are some skills that we can use, some strategies that we can use in those moments to help ourselves to manage and cope with those feelings better.
So that’s all part of that realm of practicing. And then the third set of strategies is reactive strategies.
So these are things like: The problem has happened, the situation has come up and now we are reacting to it. This happens to all of us, and even with the best intentions, the best proactive strategies, you’re doing these practices, you’re working on building these skills in your child, there are going to be times when we need reactive strategies, right? A big mess happens, things go sideways and we need to deal with it. The first thing is to come at it as calmly as you can, recognize your own uncomfortable feelings in that moment, but work to keep yourself calm and measured in your approach because that’s going to go over much better. That might mean coming back to it later when you and your child are better able to address it, and not trying to deal with it in the heat of the moment.
So “Okay, I really want the bathroom to be cleaned up right now, but I am not in a place, emotionally, where I can handle this one and I can see that my child isn’t, so we’re going to come back to it later.”
Or that might be a time where you’re like, “The bathroom has to get clean, company is coming over. I’m going to clean it now and not make an issue out of this with my child and we’re going to do some practice sessions around this later.” Because of course, the fear that we have as parents when we just go ahead and clean the mess up is that, “Ugh, they got away with it. They’re not going to learn.” But you can be intentional about saying “I”m choosing at this moment to manage it this way. I’m going to clean it up because that’s going to be best for me and my child right now, and then I’m going to do some practicing and we’re going to work with this later.”
So it’s not an issue of getting away with it, it gives it a whole different vibe of “I’m being intentional about making the choice right now that I’m going to be able to handle things better and it’s going to be best for my child if I take care of this and then we’re going to do some practice with it another time.” So that’s another way of framing that for yourself.
So if you need to come back to it later, come back to it later. If you need to divide it up into chunks, do that.
Another reactive strategy would be saying “I’m going to clean up most of it, and I’m going to leave just a little bit to have my child come back with me and clean it up.”
For really reactive kids, that might literally be one block or lego left on the floor. You clean up the entire rest of it, and you start with just “I’m going to have you come back with me, I’m going to help you and I’m going to hold the box, we’re just going to put that lego in. Great. The room is clean, let’s move along.” And then you extend from there.
Again, you are working on building those skills and stretching the emotional tolerance and helping your child be successful with it. It’s also really appropriate as a reactive strategy. If your child makes a huge mess and then does not respond appropriately to having you help clean it up and it becomes a big ordeal, for you to spotlight that you really aren’t interested in doing other things with your child right now because of how that situation happened, for you to say “I’m feeling really sad/I’m feeling really mad/frustrated about what happened earlier with that whole clean up thing. I’m just not feeling like I really want to get the craft supplies out with you right now.” Again. That’s not a threat, that’s not a punishment, it’s not a judgement. It’s just true. That’s how you’re feeling and it’s appropriate to be calm, firm and honest about how those situations impact you and how you feel.
Now, we don’t hold that over their head or hold a grudge or any of that, but it’s just being honest about you having feelings around this, but I also have feelings around this, and here is how I’m feeling right now. So to have that kind of clear communication about feelings.
So those are some strategies. Some proactive strategies, some executive function skills strategies and some reactive strategies for how to address that kind of situation.
I really hope that this is helpful for Teresa and any of you who are trying to manage your child’s behavior around making and cleaning up messes and the associate executive function problems that often play into that. Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, as always, for being here and for listening and I will catch you back here next time.