Executive Function Parenting and Your Kids Messy Room
“Your Kid’s Messy Room” is part of the Executive Function Series of Videos and the first of the series that deals with parenting implications.
Your goal is to make cleaning a room a task that a child understands and can generally do and to make it far less stressful for both of you. Having a backup adult (like another parent or friend) is useful for this only if they understand the goal.
For review, go to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Also, you can use the advice on helping your child with their messy room for other things you want your kid to do. For instance, the same technique can improve your child’s ability to do yard work or homework.
This post is for parents whose child or children have an ongoing problem with their messy room or who have a very messy room for some reason. If your child is too young to clean, or if you want to know how to deal with “the bad days” for your child, this post is also for you. Let’s try to prevent getting to this point if we can, okay?
What Does Your Kid’s Messy Room Have to do with Executive Function?
As we learned in part one of the Executive Function series, executive function is the fragile part of your brain function that is needed to do things that are new learning, are not automatic, and when you need to pay attention or concentrate. The eight areas where executive function is needed are:
Working Memory: When you have to hold something in your mind and then make it do something, like remembering a set of numbers and adding or dividing them.
Flexible Thinking: When your original idea doesn’t work or can’t be done, coming up with another way to do something. Changing due to circumstances.
Impulse Control: Managing your urge to do something you shouldn’t do. Managing your urge to not do something you should do.
Self-Monitoring: Being able to tell when you’re stressed or anxious. Recognizing how others respond to what you do or say.
Emotional Control: Being able to acknowledge and manage emotions in ways that don’t harm you or others.
Task Initiation and Self-Motivation: Being able to start a task. Motivating yourself when there is no reward for doing something.
Organization: Organizing and maintaining a physical space so that everything has a place. Ensuring belongings are clean and safely
Planning, Prioritization, and Time Management: Deciding which task is most important. Choosing which task to start on. Using work/break cycles to be more productive.
You can see, reading these areas of executive function, how your kid’s messy room is affected when their executive function is not working at its best.
What Doesn’t Work:
Because executive function is so fragile, the things we usually do to “make” a child clean their messy room usually serve to make things worse:
“All in one go”:
You get in there and clean your room right now, Kid, and don’t come out until you do!” Your kid’s messy room is going to stay messy if you do this. The stress of trying to manage all the small tasks that become “cleaning my room” causes your kid’s executive function to get worse. This often leads to arguments and frustration in your kid and in you.
Yelling and/or calling the child “lazy” or “disrespectful”:
Again, yelling causes stress (for you and your kid) and reduces executive function. Using “lazy” or “disrespectful” to identify your child is called labeling. Labeling causes children to believe that rather than not being able to (or not wanting to) do a specific task, they are fundamentally wrong in some way that doing the task won’t fix.
“You’re grounded until your room is clean”:
Although this might work in an older child who has a history of usually being able to clean their work, it’s chancy. When you ground your kid, you’re grounding yourself. This makes it likely that you won’t stick to the grounding. Your child may learn that all they need to do is out-wait you. I’ll discuss grounding further in later videos, and better ways to ground.
Giving up and doing it yourself:
If your child is going through a rough time and won’t be able to handle cleaning their messy room until it’s over, go ahead and clean their room. However, parents often get into this bad habit because it’s easier, quicker, and the work gets done better. What happens, though, is that your child will never learn how to clean their room if you do this.
What Works to Get Your Kid’s Messy Room Clean
Before You Start: Emotional Tasks
First, you need to assess your own executive function:
Are you having a rough mental health day? Is there a lot going on at work or with personal stuff? If so, you might want to pull the dirty dishes and laundry out of your kid’s messy room and wait until later to get it all the way clean. Are you ready? Do you have the ability today to stay calm and positive and do the work? Okay. We’re ready to go.
Let your child know what you’re going to be doing:
Pick a day with nothing much going on, and give them a least a couple of hour’s notice.
Make sure they have eaten and got some sleep:
Both eating and sleeping help executive function and mood. You might want to prepare some work snacks for yourself and your kid.
get your expectations in order:
Your child is going to feel lots of ways about cleaning their room. No matter what “attitude” they give you, your response should be something along the lines of “I know you feel angry/frustrated/sad. And it’s time to clean.” Acknowledge the feeling, but don’t fuel it, and refocus them on the room. You’ll need to manage your own emotions for this.
Before you start: Physical Tasks
Pick an activity for yourself that you can do in your kid’s messy room:
Pick a book, a coloring book, a small crafting project (without small parts) or a video game to play. Please ensure that whatever you’re doing is something you can “pause” any time you need to. This activity is to keep you calm and entertained and make it more likely you’re going to be able to follow through helping your child today. Gather what you need for this activity in some portable way and have it ready.
Gather the supplies you will need for the cleaning:
You might enlist your kid’s help with this if they are ready. If they’re reluctant, you’ll have to start their part in their room. This isn’t the battleground you want. You want their room to be the battleground. Gather a laundry basket or bag and a trash can or bag. You’ll also want supplies such as a broom, a rag and/or paper towels and a cleaning spray. You will also need some sort of timer. A kitchen timer or the timer function on your phone is fine.
getting your child in the room:
For a moment, I want you to pretend that your child is a stray cat that you’re trying to pet. You mean it no harm, but it doesn’t trust you, because it’s half wild. So you hold out your hand and let them make some of the moves.
- Got the idea? Try to gently encourage your child to get in the bedroom. If it helps, pick an activity that mirrors the one you’re doing, and tell them they can do it during rest periods.
- Try hard not to make this a battle. It’ll be easier if your child is younger, but even teenagers can be persuaded most of the time.
- If you need to, use what I call your “dog training voice”. Speak firmly the way a coach or boss might tell you that you need to do something, without raising your voice.
- Sample persuaders: “It’s time to get started now”. “I’m turning your game off” (then do it). “You can have/play [the thing] during breaks or after we’re done”.
Now That You’re In Your Kid’s Messy Room with Them
Go over the game plan:
Sit or stand with your child (sitting is better) and give them an overview of what you’re going to be doing. For instance: “You’re going to be cleaning your room today and I’ll be helping by guiding you. You’ll get regular breaks, and when you’re done, we’ll do something together.” Does your child need music to work? That’s fine. Or an audiobook. No videos, and no screens during work time.
Take a picture of the room:
Important note: this is not to shame your child for their messy room. This is to give your kid a big high-five at the end of the day when most or all of the room is finished.
Settle into your “spot”:
This will probably be your child’s bed, or it may be a chair or even a cushion or folding chair at the doorway. Pick it for comfort and for being out of the way. You may have to move as the day progresses.
Help Your Child start the first task:
Look around the room and pick two tasks you think it might be good for your kid to start with. Say “Okay, would you like to start with A or B?” For instance, dirty laundry or paper trash. It’s okay if they say, “I’d actually like to start with C.” All you’re trying to do by narrowing it to two choices is to prevent your child from being overwhelmed. If they have a task they feel comfortable starting with, let them start with that.
set the timer for Work:
The timer is to time work/break cycles. This comes from the Pomodoro Technique developed for business use. I am modifying it for use with children (and often modify it for use with adults who need modification). Set the timer for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes, based on your child’s age (younger is shorter) and attention span. Your child will work for that amount of time. During that time, if your child needs it, give them pointers (if they ask) or a gentle reminder to get moving again. “Did you get distracted, sweetheart? Back to work.” or some other gentle reminder. Remember, no videos and no screens during work time. It’s probably best to confiscate them (but not snoop. That’s another video, though).
When the timer goes off, Praise the work:
Look around for something good you can say about this first effort. It might just be “Wow, you stayed in the room (most of the time)!” if things were really hard, or it might be “Wow, you got your floor almost completely done!”
set the break timer:
The timer for the break should be set no shorter than the timer for the work unless the child is doing very well. If your child worked for 20 minutes and got a lot done, they might be eager to get back to work and ten minutes or fifteen will be fine. Rules for the break:
- Keep the room as clean at the end of the break as it was at the start
- Do things that can be “paused” or finished in the break time.
- You can leave the room, but not the house.
- Snacks (you set them up, right?) are fine.
- Phonecalls with friends are fine, so long as they get off the phone
take another picture to show the progress
Take a good, long shot of the room. Your child being goofy, sullen, or happy in the picture is fine.
repeat the picture, work timer, praise, break timer cycle
You will work until the room is done, or for four hours, or until the point that either your child’s emotions or yours have escalated enough that you need to stop for the day. However it ends, notice and praise what got done. Do not focus on what didn’t get done.
When you are done for the day, whether the room got completely done or not, spend a little time celebrating with your child. This could be watching a favorite show together, having a favorite snack, taking a trip to a park, something that works for you. It might be allowing your child “alone” time to decompress.
If that’s okay, make sure there’s a material reward such as a snack or a small gift, to show that you appreciate the effort both of you made. If I didn’t make it clear, this is a celebration of you keeping your cool (for as long as you managed to) as well as your child’s improvement.
the point *isn’t* your kid’s messy room
The point is teaching your child and yourself. You/they are working on your working memory by figuring out where things go. When things don’t go quite as expected, both of you will be using your flexible thinking skill. Emotional control and impulse control are both important things that you’re trying to build with this method of helping a child to clean (your’s and their’s).
You’ll want to pay close attention to your mood and ability to read your child’s mood during this. And of course, you’ll want to work on the skills of starting a task and organizing the space and the time involved. There. You’re working on all eight areas of executive function.
I broke the ordinary job of “cleaning a room” into a lot of carefully explained tasks so that you would see that often the place we struggle isn’t the obvious, upfront spot, but a spot somewhere in the back. Hopefully, this will help you and your child make room cleaning ordinary and easy instead of stressful and hard.
If you are working with a child with any of the following conditions or situations, this exercise will require a lot more patience, and possibly several days of four hour or shorter sessions to complete:
- any developmental disability
- anxiety disorders including PTSD
- any mood disorder including depression and bipolar
- a child who has been experiencing abuse or neglect
- the child is in a new situation (new home, new school, new sibling, etc.)
- a history of you or any other adult or older child using yelling or punishments to get the child to do chores.
- any other disorder or situation that seriously affects a child’s ability to manage emotions or manage their time and space.
As with all parenting tips, there are going to be situations where this advice isn’t going to be enough. Please seek assistance from a professional if your child is having issues that can’t be managed without expert intervention. And if you don’t mind, I’d love to see before and after pictures of your child’s messy room. With their permission of course (see this video on Consent Culture for why).
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