My darling daughter has a really hard time picking up after herself. She’ll pleasantly spend hours cleaning and organizing the kitchen, including “polishing” the stainless steel garbage can, but can’t tackle her own spaces in the same way.
She joined our family three years ago when we adopted her from the foster care system. She was nine-years-old and had suffered significant trauma.
The years of neglect and bouncing around foster care have made a deep impact on her ability to handle her belongings. She holds on to every scrap that comes into her room. Tags off clothes get stuffed in drawers. Toilet paper bits that she uses to dab lip gloss are shoved in between bottles on her bathroom shelf (“I can use them again and not waste paper”, she says).
Dirty clothes are all over her bedroom and bathroom floors, even though she has a hamper in her room. Nothing gets put back after she uses it.
She feels ashamed that she can’t keep her room neat. The shame puts her in a frozen, helpless state and the clutter builds up until Mom or Dad step in and help get it under control again. We’ve tried rearranging her room, a variety of organizational systems and rotating belongs so she doesn’t have so much to deal with at once. The disarray always creeps back.
On some level, I think the messiness is a comfort to her. She lived in chaos for so many years. It’s familiar. However, she is definitely calmer and happier when her room is neat and organized.
I also struggle with picking up after myself and keeping things neat and organized. My car is a disaster. We’d be buried alive inside if it wasn’t for my husband. My childhood was also filled with chaos.
Lately, I’ve been trying to help my daughter stay on top of her room on a daily basis so it doesn’t become overwhelming. This is tricky, though.
Cleaning was punishment in foster care, so chores are a big trigger for her and have to be handled delicately. The children at her last placement also had long lists of chores they had to do each day before dinner was served. Expecting her to pick up her room every day, would trigger a “Cinderella” mentality.
So I break it up and casually throw out a request.
“Hey, Sweetie, looks like you were playing with your makeup and left it all over your bathroom counter. Can you please take care of that so the cat doesn’t get into it? I don’t think sparkly eye shadow would look good on him.”
I recently asked her to put her dirty clothes in the hamper before she left for the day. She assured me she did. Once she was gone, I discovered the clothes were still all over the floor.
We hugged and chatted about her day when she came home. Then I said, “Oh, my goodness! You’ll never believe what happened! Come! Let me show you!”
I took her by the hand and led her to her bedroom.
“I asked you to put away your dirty clothes and you told me you did, so I don’t know what happened, but some how they got out again! Maybe you threw them in too hard and they bounced out? I don’t know what in the world happened, but can you please pick them again? To make sure they don’t get out again, go ahead and put them in the washing machine. Looks like you don’t quite have a full load so throw in some clothes from my hamper with it. Make sure you shut that washing machine up tightly so nothing escapes.”
Then we marveled at how crazy it was the clothes didn’t stay in the hamper while she gathered up a load of laundry and started the washer.
I could have lectured her the moment she walked in the door, then grounded her.
But why? So she’d know she was wrong? To remind her who’s in charge? To make sure she was ashamed of her actions?
I just don’t see how that’s necessary. My way made it clear that I knew what had happened. And I tacked on an extra chore without her even feeling the shame of having a consequence.
Later she came to me and said,
“Sorry about the clothes, Momma. I was worried about the day and in a hurry to leave.”
This was a clear win in my book. We’ll both continue working on picking up after ourselves, but making sure she knows she’s safe, loved and worthy are more important than dirty clothes on the floor.
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