Help!  My disorganized child is driving me crazy!

It’s a familiar scene: a child’s bedroom looks like a warzone.  Maybe there are toys covering the floor.  Maybe there are clothes, dishes and wrappers, too.  They are completely unbothered by the chaos.  You, on the other hand, cringe every time you walk by.  You might even yell, punish or threaten.  As a parent, I can totally relate.  I have one super-organized teenager and one super-unorganized teenager.  The power struggles that happen in our house can sometimes be epic.  What I know for sure is that I turn into a version of myself that I do not like.

Now what?  How do we disengage from the fighting and set some boundaries that meet both of your needs?  Here are a few pointers:

  • First, really think about what is important to you. What bothers you most?  Is it the floor space?  Does frustration set in when your child can’t find anything on their own?  Is it that all of your spoons disappear from your kitchen and mysteriously end up in your child’s room?  Naming your most pressing stress points can give you a jumping off point.
  • Release yourself from the fantasy that you will get your child to be as organized as you are. Wouldn’t it be great if they were?  Absolutely!  Thinking of the long-game of getting your child to adulthood with some skills and ability to decide what is important to them is much more helpful than forcing them into blindly following your rules.  We have probably all met people who have been forced in childhood obedience who go off the rails when they hit adulthood.  You will not have met your objectives if your child gets into their first away-from-home living situation and the pendulum of organization swings so far the other way that they are now a disorganized adult, impacting roommate relationships with an inability to reel it in.
  • Expect to work with your child as they begin organizing. This will help both of you learn what is most important to each of you.  As you begin, you can take turns talking about what your goals are.  This is where you can say, “It is really important to me that we can walk through your room without stepping on your toys and belongings.  I would hate to accidentally break something that is important to you.”  You can also ask questions like, “Do you feel like you have the right amount of things in your room, or do you think there are some things in here that you might be ready to part with?” This back-and-forth dialogue is where you make your non-negotiable items be known.  Maybe it is a rule that the floor remain uncluttered.  Maybe dishes have to be returned to the kitchen daily.  Maybe you even decide that there is no food in the bedroom.  Make sure your declarations reasonable and realistic.  These have to be things you are willing to follow up on.
  • As hard as it is, I recommend that you do not have an expectation that things will be leaving the child’s room to be disposed of, other than trash. Going in with an organizing mindset, rather than a clearing out mindset, where the child does not feel pressured to make tough decisions about losing some of their possessions, will allow them to feel in control.  Setting some guidelines before you start will help with what you know for sure needs to leave the room, like trash and dishes.  Making a spot for those items before you begin helps frame your work.  In my house, I always have a bag for trash, a bin for recycling, a donation box and a spot for dishes to be returned to the kitchen.
  • Look around your child’s room and see what organizing systems are in place and what systems you might need to create. Bookcases, shelves and bins are great systems.  We also use under-the-bed storage for things that we don’t use often, but that are important to keep.  Discussing what ideas your child might have for new containers or systems might help them with motivation for the process.  A quick trip to the Home Organization section of a store could be a fun way to work together on the project.
  • Remember that attention spans and energy can stop all of a sudden. There is nothing worse than working along and then hitting a wall where you both need a break, and having mounds of things that need to be dealt with, like trash and dishes.  Set a timer when you start to manage some of this stuff along the way so that when you are ready to stop for the day, you can.  Periodically running some dishes to the kitchen, or a bag to the trash, or donating items to the garage can help you see quick progress, as well as keep you from having to do it all at the end when you are tired or “done.”
  • It is important to fully remove items that you have mutually decided must go. If you have made a pile of items to go to a donation center, but leave the pile in the room expecting to finish later, the items will likely get re-assimilated back into the clutter.  Have a goal of making decisions about items only once, not over and over again with each organizing session.

Use the mantra of “progress, not perfection.”  As with other parts of parenting, you are teaching skills for the long-haul.  The first time your child makes a decision that comes closer to your way of thinking, you can feel the warm glow of pride, knowing they made that decision on their own, with your help.  That, my friend, is what it is all about!  Happy organizing!