What a Mess! How to Help Messy Kids Get Organized

Image via Katie Hurley

I wouldn't call my daughter disorganized. Her desk at school frequently wins the peer-appointed “neatest desk” award, which I think is actually a bottle of hand sanitizer or something like that. She loves it. She treats it like a huge honor every time she gets it. 

Sometimes organized chaos is actually far more organized than it is chaotic. It all depends on how you choose to look at it.

She doesn't lose things, she keeps her backpack neat and tidy, and she loves to help me organize things around the house. But her bedroom? Totally different story!

It's not what you think. It’s not covered with dirty clothes, and you don’t find yourself stepping on toys all over the place. But the clothes folded with care each week are no longer folded after one day in the drawers. And the stuff—the piles and piles of collections—fill bin after bin on the shelves. Just looking at it makes my head spin.

But here's the catch: it makes perfect sense to her. If I ask her about a particular piece of sea glass, she can find it in less than one minute. If I ask her if a certain shirt is clean or in the laundry, she knows without looking. My daughter’s bedroom is the perfect example of organized chaos.

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Some kids are messy. Really, really messy. It can be frustrating for parents to deal with a habitually messy bedroom (especially when that desk at school is spotless), and often, the response is to set firm limits about cleaning up. But sometimes, a better tactic is to help kids understand the reason behind the mess and find a way to organize that makes sense to them.

box of toys
Image via Flickr/ kodomut

Understand the mess

Believe it or not, there is often a method to the madness. Just as my daughter remembers where everything is, many kids organize (or disorganize, as the case may be) their rooms in a certain way. Sure, a floor that can't even be seen probably lacks formal organization, but sometimes, piles of things are actually categorized by children. My daughter, for example, has an entire bucket in one corner of what I would consider mismatched toys, but she considers them “special memories” toys. I want to dump it and organize it so that it makes more sense. She smiles every time she looks at it.

Sketch a map of the mess when your child isn't around, and then have your child guide you through it. Ask about the placement of objects. Take some time to consider possible solutions. Is there too much stuff? Is there insufficient storage? 

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messy floor
Image via Flickr/ eflon

Make a plan together


Your child might be comfortable living in state of disarray, but some cleanliness has its benefits. Dust is the asthmatic's enemy, and rooms can become so cluttered that it's nearly impossible to play in or use them. 

Ask your child for input on what would help to create an organizational system. When you give up a little control and involve your child in the process, your child feels responsible and learns that he or she can keep his or her room organized in a meaningful way.

storage bins
Image via Flickr/ ifindkarma

See-through storage bins help

Sometimes, kids leave stuff around in piles because they like to see their stuff. If they can see it, they know where it is. See-through storage bins might not be as cute as the ones that come in pretty colors, but they can be helpful in your child’s room. Many options will fit under the bed and/or on bookshelves. 

Let your child organize the bins and draw pictures to place on the front of the bins to indicate what each bin contains. 

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kid room
Image via Flickr/ Just Taken Pics


Sometimes, simple solutions make a big difference. Placing my daughter's laundry hamper at the foot of her bed (versus hiding it in the closet) ensures that all dirty laundry actually makes it into the laundry. Putting my son's storage bins at the foot of his bed makes it easier for him to clean up the endless piles of cars each night. 

Kids love to play, and they are always on the move. Pick your battles. If you want to make sure that sweatshirts are hanging on hooks, put the hooks in an obvious spot at child height. If you want toys put away each night, make sure the toy bins are easily accessible. 

The easier the organizational system, the greater the success rate. Keep it simple and let your kids take the lead. 

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What a Mess! How to Help Messy Kids Get Organized

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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1 comment

  1. Michelle says:

    Hahahahahahahaha! i wish sometimes that someone had thought of these methods when I was growing up! It was always war when it came to my bedroom! My brother was the complete opposite.. his room was always military style clean.. Mine, was lovingly called my Hiroshima.. It has improved slightly now that Im expecting my own child, but i can guarantee that he will most likely be an organised chaos child. But hey, thats okay. i survived and didnt do too badly.


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