Why messiness can make kids anxious

By Andrew Kahn, PsyD

Updated April 14, 2023

Why being messy can make kids anxious, kid looking at a cluttered room

At a glance

  • Being organized requires executive function skills some kids lack.

  • Organization is hard for kids with ADHD.

  • Messiness can create anxiety for different reasons.

For some kids, messiness is a choice. They’re not upset by mess or clutter and can clean up when they need to or want to. But for kids who struggle with organization, like many kids with ADHD, messiness is a challenge, not a choice. And it can cause a lot of anxiety.

Getting and staying organized isn’t simple. It involves a number of steps. And it requires skills like planning and staying focused. 

When kids have trouble with these skills, the process of getting organized can leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious. And if they get in trouble for being messy, anxiety can build.

Learn more about messiness and anxiety, and how to help.

Trouble with organization

For kids to be organized, they need to rely on a group of mental skills called executive functions. These skills allow kids to start and complete tasks, like picking up their things and putting them away.

Young kids may have a hard time with organization because their executive function skills are still developing. But kids who continue to struggle as they get older may have executive function challenges. 

Trouble with organization and other executive skills is common in kids with ADHD. That’s because ADHD is a problem with executive function. 

Kids who struggle with organization aren’t messy on purpose. They may even hate being surrounded by clutter or find it overwhelming. 

Why messiness and clutter cause anxiety

Kids who struggle with organization on a daily basis are often stressed. The constant search for materials. The loss of important items. And questions from adults: “When did you last have your ______ (notebook, homework, shoes, etc.)?” The experience can be frustrating — and embarrassing. 

Picture the teacher standing impatiently by your side as you frantically search through crumpled papers for your homework. Or your classmates laughing at the sight of your overstuffed backpack. Or looking at a huge pile of clutter to clean up at home and being overwhelmed at the sight of it. Imagine how anxious and ashamed you might feel about your performance and personal space. 

Anxiety can show up in different ways and look different from child to child. When kids face ongoing stress, they may:

  • Withdraw from people
  • Be irritable
  • Misbehave
  • Worry about something bad happening 

Many kids with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. The two disorders often co-occur, and their symptoms can look similar. Both can make organization difficult. 

Ways to help

There are ways to help your child become more organized and feel less anxious. Here are some tips:

  • Use a checklist. Be sure to include step-by-step instructions and due dates to help kids stay on track. 
  • Take advantage of color-coded folders. Folders can help kids keep items in one spot so they’re easy to find. 
  • Practice organization. Learning and thinking differences like ADHD can make it hard to stay neat. Extra practice and support are helpful. For example, you can model how you organize the mail at home or the materials in your work bag.

It can be frustrating to have a messy child. But your child is probably frustrated, too. Knowing you understand their challenges can make a big difference in how your child feels.

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