Imagine this: You’ve never seen a Rubik’s Cube before and, frankly, you have no prior experience working with puzzles of any kind. Yet you’ve been tasked with completing the Rubik’s Cube with no help. Oh, and you have to solve it in the next 30 minutes.
This is how a child with ADHD feels when told to tidy their room. (Though, to be fair, many adults with ADHD feel this way, too.) It’s a baffling, insurmountable task with no real beginning or end. After all, a room has different areas, different furniture, and lots of different ‘stuff’ strewn all around in a giant mess. It is an abstract monster!
I know how dreadful and confusing tidying can be because I was that child. I grew up the eldest of four children, and I shared a bedroom with my brother. When it was time to clean our room, we drew an imaginary line down the middle of the floor and always argued over whether it was a fair partitioning of our space. But once the borders were settled, my brother proceeded to attack his side of the room with consummate ease. In the short time it took him to finish, my mind had wandered several times to several different topics — anything from the thing I’d seen across the road from our window to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and some toys I had forgotten about that I suddenly wanted to play with.
My mind wandered because I was unable to work out where to begin tidying. Something else would always catch my attention. I’d hear plenty of complaints from my parents — if my brother could do it just fine, why couldn’t I?
Today, I’m the adult with four children. At 39, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Like most people with a late diagnosis, I went through a period of profound reflection; I finally knew what I was working with (and against), and it was a weight lifted off my shoulders.
My youngest boy, 10, also has ADHD. It was his assessment process that made me sit up and take note of all his symptoms and how they mirrored my own behaviors and challenges from childhood to this day. I understood, at last, that ADHD can make things like tidying a messy room feel like battling an abstract monster. Our brains find it very hard to look at a shapeless, scary problem and break it down into manageable chunks.
How to Clean Your Room: My Guide, ADHD-Style
When I ask my boys to clean their shared room, I know what to expect from the smallest. While I don’t have all the answers, I did eventually learn this process for breaking down all kinds of abstract monsters:
- Take a piece of paper, write the abstract thing at the top (in this case, tidying the room), and draw a box around it.
- Take two minutes to think about the different facets of the abstract thing. Write those as subheadings, also in their own boxes. For tidying, I have my child pick any part of the room; the exact location or task doesn’t matter. If they’re really struggling to pick, I have them toss a pair of socks over their head — where they land is as good a place as any to begin. Coat hangers, toy cars, and dirty clothes are all good subheadings.
- Work each subheading independently. Pick up the coat hangers and put them back in the closet. Then focus on the toys. Where did those toys live before they ended up on the floor? Cool, put them back there. Then, dirty clothes — are they really dirty? Check them. If they are, put them in the wash basket. If they aren’t, put them on your newly hung-up hangers, or in a drawer.
This process doesn’t have to be perfect or even neat. It just has to help with getting started and staying on task. For my boy, I think of it as bumper rails to help him tidy his room more effectively, and with less arguing. When he gets overwhelmed, I help get him back on track with some calming words and refer him back to the above process. I can’t and won’t tidy his room for him because he will meet all manner of challenges in life that will certainly be more complicated than tidying a room. I know that helping him develop processes or coping mechanisms now will pay dividends later in his life.
So next time your kids struggle with something as “simple” as cleaning their room, take a second to remember that what you see as a straightforward task can be a scary, unwieldy project for ADHD minds. A bit of guidance in breaking down the abstract monster might be just the thing they need to succeed.
Clean Your Room with ADHD: Next Steps
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