By Rachel Martin, AMFT and Marté J. Matthews, LMFT
“That’s it. If your room isn’t clean by the time I get home, we’re donating all of your toys to Goodwill!” All too often many of us end up throwing out some sort of threat in response to our kids not following through on a chore. We as parents do so much, why can’t our kids follow through with these small tasks that have been so clearly laid out?
If you find yourself in the broken record phase of parenting (it can hit at any age), you might try following: Take a deep, deep breath. In and out. The next few things I want you to consider trying require you to have an open mind--some “cognitive flexibility” if you want to get technical. And for your brain to be truly open and flexible, we want to come out of your stress response, the “Fight/Flight/Freeze” mode of operating. Your teen’s disgusting room is not actually a survival threat. (Although who knows what might be lurking under that pile in the corner?!? But let’s assume it’s not a wolverine). So take three of those deep breaths and read on.
Is your kid truly just disobeying and ignoring your requests? Maybe. It’s possible. That’s a bigger problem for another article here on our parenting blog.
But if you want them to clean their room, you might have more success if you start with the premise your kid is just lacking the knowledge or skills. So you can teach them. Here’s how to do that:
1. A picture is worth a thousand reminders. Does your idea of a clean room match what your child thinks of as a clean room? For many kids, the phrase “clean up your room” is vague, unclear and above all, overwhelming. Some people are neater than we are, and some are messier than we are. There are a million different interpretations as to what a “clean” room looks like, so take the guesswork out of it. Here’s how: Take a picture of different parts of their messy room. Then clean their room for them. (Yes, I know the point to get them to clean it. Bear with me). Then take another picture of the clean room. Show them the pictures. Post the clean room picture on their door when they are expected to clean it and say “Make it look like this.” (Be proactive if you have a child who is likely to shove everything in the closet, under their bed or into drawers. Add a picture of organized closet and drawers to their duties). Stand in their room together, and survey the clean. Talk about what makes a clean room.
2. Set priorities: Pick the Top 3-5 things that are unacceptable about their room. Write out a very clear list of what your kid needs to do to bring their room into the acceptable zone. What DO they need to do? Be specific. Examples: all dirty clothes go in the hamper by 8pm; bring all dirty dishes to dishwasher or kitchen counter by 5 pm; clear off desk to make room for homework by 4pm. Write it out on a list, post it, and encourage them to check off each thing as they do it.
3. Cleaning doesn’t have to be unpleasant: Snow White had the right idea: Whistle while you work. Try playing some music, listening to a podcast, or doing something pleasant while you work.
4. You don’t have to go it alone: Kids get lonely when they are banished to their room alone to clean up. Spend some time working alongside each child, and catch them being cooperative and express some appreciation.
5. Make a game of it: Who can get their job done first-Larry with the Lego’s or Brianna with the books? Or…Last time it took 6 minutes to make the bed. Can you do it in 5 this time?
6. Try a 60 second blitz: If the living room is a mess & it’s not even lunch time yet, try a fast clean up strategy: Each child gets their own container. (Laundry baskets work well for this job). Set a timer for 60 seconds, and each person gathers up their own things in one room until they have all of their things, or the timer goes off. Then they can just choose one thing to bring back out after lunch. The rest of the basket goes to their room.
7. Practice an important life skill: Is your child simply overwhelmed by how much there is to do? Perhaps they literally don’t know how or where to start? The ability to break big jobs down into smaller, more manageable tasks is an important life skill. If you take your time to really teach and practice this skill with your child, they will have the ability to tackle the really big hurdles that life throws at them. Talk with your kid and make a list of the different parts of cleaning their room, much like in #2. How much can they actually accomplish each day? Make a plan, and try it out for a week. After a week, see what worked & what needs a better plan. Create a written schedule. Maybe you have one task per day. Maybe you have a deadline when it has to get done. Ideas might sound like this:
Sunday- put clean laundry away before dinner at 5:30 pm (Be specific: hang shirts on hanger and put socks, underwear and pants in the dresser drawers. Labels on each drawer can save a lot of frustration)
Monday-clear space on desk for homework by 4 pm
Tuesday-take trash & recycling out to the curb by 7 pm
Wednesday- clean up toys on the floor by 8 pm
Thursday- put all dirty laundry in hamper by 8 pm
Friday-Lego’s all go in the container by 4 pm
Saturday-books all go back on the shelf by noon
8. Set up a Behavioral Reward System: This is perhaps the key to all of these ideas. Your child is most likely not going to be motivated enough by the pleasant feeling of accomplishment that comes for you after cleaning up. That’s okay and totally normal. Let’s work with it. Set it up in advance that they can earn something by following the expectations on a daily or weekly basis. Cleaning up your room takes a lot of motivation for most of us, so small rewards they can earn more often will be a better motivation than one big one at the end of a month.
We hope some of these ideas help you and your family create new habits and a neater, more organized home.