Some kids are naturally neat. They keep their things fairly organized and try to avoid mess. Others aren’t always so tidy. But many kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) are messy most of the time, which can cause problems at home and at school.
Kids who can’t find their supplies in their messy desk at school might not have time to finish an in-class assignment. They might miss a field trip because the permission slip got lost in their overflowing backpack. And they might repeatedly get in trouble for having a messy room, even after being told to clean it up.
This behavior can be confusing (and annoying). You may wonder why your child just doesn’t keep things neat (or somewhat neat) to avoid consequences. It could be bothering your child, too. Kids with ADHD often aren’t being messy on purpose. They might even feel embarrassed about it.
Learn why many kids with ADHD struggle so much with messiness, and how you can help.
The ADHD Brain and Messiness
Kids with ADHD struggle with executive function, a group of mental skills that we all use to get things done. These skills allow us to organize, plan, pay attention, manage our time, keep things in mind, and start and finish tasks. When kids struggle with these skills, it can be hard for them to figure out how to put things in order—and keep them that way. Here are a few examples:
Trouble with planning. When you say, “please clean up your room,” it might seem like an obvious process. But if there’s no concrete plan for how to do that, your child may have no idea where to start, let alone how to proceed. You might come back half an hour later to check on how it’s going and find the mess still there and your child playing.
Trouble with working memory. Even when the process for cleaning up is clear, your child may take the first step, turn away to look at something, and then forget what the next step is. When you come back to check in, you see that your child has brought a laundry basket into the room but stopped there. Your child’s now engrossed in a book, and none of the clothes on the floor have made it to the basket.
Trouble with attention. Your child might also get halfway through the task and then get distracted by a toy or a text from a friend. When your child gets absorbed in something more interesting, it may be hard to come back to finish a boring task—even if there are negative consequences like losing TV privileges.
All of these situations can be traced back to trouble with executive function. Your child may have every intention of cleaning up. But difficulties with these skills keep that from happening.
ADHD and Leaving a Mess Behind
Kids with ADHD don’t only make messes. They often just walk away from them. You may think this is due to laziness, and sometimes it is. But often, ADHD challenges are to blame when kids constantly leave the top off the toothpaste or forget to flush the toilet despite being told over and over to do it.
Trouble with working memory, planning, impulse control, and focus can all keep a child from finishing a task. They may remember to take the toothpaste out of the medicine cabinet, squeeze some onto the brush, and then brush their teeth. But they may not be able to follow through on the last part of the process.
There’s another reason kids with ADHD might always leave the soap on the shower floor or leave food in the sink after doing the dishes. They may be racing through those tasks in order to get to something they’re far more interested in. And once they’re hyperfocused on that more interesting task, it’s very hard for kids to tear themselves away to do something they think is boring, like taking a shower.
ADHD and Messy Eating
You might think of messiness in terms of clutter and lack of organization, whether it’s in your child’s room, backpack, or desk. But many kids with ADHD are also messy eaters. Here are some possible explanations.
Impulsivity. Kids might grab for something on the table and knock it (or something else) over in the process. They often eat quickly, which can lead them to drop things as they eat.
Hyperactivity. Kids might restlessly fidget under the table and bump into it, causing things to spill. Or their napkin may keep falling on the floor.
Weak fine motor skills. This is a fairly common challenge for kids with ADHD. They might have a hard time holding a knife and fork properly, so food may end up falling off the plate. (If your child is struggling with motor skills, find out what to do next.)
How to Help Your Child With Messiness
A good first step is to recognize the reasons for your child’s messiness and find ways to limit it. One thing you can do is break down cleanup tasks into smaller steps. You could also:
Create a picture schedule or checklist to help your child remember the steps to a task.
Use a backpack checklist to help organize your child’s backpack.
Try mindfulness exercises, which can help kids slow down and be more purposeful in their actions.
Explore other tools and solutions to help teens with organization.
Most kids respond better to rewards than to nagging. So, you may want to offer an incentive for your child to clean up a particular mess. For example, you might say, “When you have all the dirty clothes picked up and put in the laundry basket, we can spend some time together doing something that’s fun.”
It can also help to try to change your reactions to mess. It can be hard to walk by your child’s room and see that it’s a disaster area. But sometimes, it’s better to just close the door and let it be. Pick your battles. If your child’s eating habits have stained the tablecloth, take a deep breath and try to remember that the messiness is part of ADHD.
Watch as an expert explains more: