5 top tips for getting your child with ADHD to do their “chores”

I hate housework. I would prefer to do ANYTHING else.

Another reason I hate housework is that it has always been a challenge to get my kids to help around the house. Yes, most kids will struggle with this, but kids with ADHD find it so much harder.

I had read every parenting book around and read multiple articles about getting my kids to help around the house. No matter what, when my kids were FINALLY in bed for the night, I would collapse on the lounge in a heap, then cry while I thought about the day and cleaned up the entire house from my whirlwind children.

No matter how much discipline I threatened or how many rewards I promised, nothing worked. They refused to clean up! World War III would start and end with holes in the walls, scratches all over my arms just for asking them to pick something up off the floor… that they had left there!!!!!

Five Years Later

Fast forward five years, and my children all unpack the dishwasher, re-load the dishwasher, wash, dry, sort and fold the family’s laundry. They each have a pet that they look after, including feeding, watering, cleaning their homes and giving them attention. They are responsible for their own rooms (which are always messy but get in and clean them when they are asked!) They will also help me clean the rest of the house every day and mostly… without complaining. I mean, hello – it’s housework! I HATE housework – a little bit of complaining is to be expected.

How on earth did we go from a full-blown meltdown to this level of responsibility being carried out every day? Sorry if you are hoping for the magic wand. No such luck, but hard work usually produces good results like everything in life!

My advice!

My advice for neurodiverse children? Throw out the rule book. Throw out the parenting book that recommends checklists, chore charts and being super strict with consequences. Here are 5 things that have changed my ADHD kiddies from being unable to do any chores to just getting in and doing it!

Now my caveat before you read on: my house is NOT always tidy! Far from it! (Remember I am also pretty sure I have ADHD, so I always struggle with it!)

I am not talking about perfection here, I am talking about building up your children to see tidying and cleaning up as part of their responsibility living with a family!

Before we get to the tips!

Before the 5 tips though, we need to understand how the ADHD brain works and why our kids have the odds stacked against them when you mention chores.

ADHD brains don’t have as much dopamine available to them.

We often think of dopamine as a feel-good hormone, and while it is, it’s also so much more than this. It is a fantastic chemical messenger in the brain that supports motivation to do tasks that you don’t want to do by seeing the benefit or reward on the other side. For example, I will clean up then sit down at lunch with a Netflix episode (sound familiar?). Our kids with ADHD aren’t able to do that.

That delayed gratification may as well be 10 years in the future. If it’s not the here and now, they can’t get started on tasks they find boring or non-urgent. Um… Housework anyone?

So how can we support the ADHD brains we are working with to get them started on housework? Here are my top 5 tips!

TIP #1 Start with managing your expectations.

Type “chores for kids” in pinterest. You will find an infinite number of examples of chore charts, checklists, reward charts, and my least favourite, as an ADHD Mumma – chores for kids by age.

Don’t get me wrong, these are fantastic resources for some children, maybe even some ADHD children, but not my ADHD children. I can tell you I had tried absolutely every kind of these “infallible” ways of getting my children to do their chores, and nothing worked.

Remember, our kids have an average 30% delay in executive function maturation. These executive functions include (but are not limited to) organisation and planning, self-control, emotional self-regulation and working memory. All of which we need when we are cleaning and tidying! Their brains are actually hardwired, NOT to want to do chores. Yes – most kids might be the same, but they have enough dopamine to motivate them.

So, rather than getting frustrated that they can’t spend a whole Saturday cleaning up or maybe they aren’t even going to be able to do one whole chore yet!

But that’s ok. Work with where they are at now!

TIP #2 Don’t mention the words ‘chores,’ ‘jobs,’ ‘responsibility’ or ‘work’ just ask for their help!

“Ok, everyone! It’s time to do your chores” would STILL get a hugely adverse reaction in my house.

ADHD brains are hardwired to hate tedious, monotonous, lengthy or boring tasks. Rather than framing housework as a big job, try asking for their help. Something like: “Hey mate! Can you help me for a second? I need you to reach down and plug the vacuum cleaner in?” might be enough to start you off.

Instead of making a big deal, just tell them what is expected!

Like Ned Hallowell (author of ADHD 2.0) says: Act don’t yak!

TIP #3 Break down big tasks and start SMALL

I did not start by telling my children to “clean the house,” “put on a load of washing”, or even “unpack the dishwasher.” I started small … and when I say small… I mean minuscule, infinitesimal… microscopic.

I got them to do the first step of the job. “Please pick up that one piece of rubbish and put it in the bin,” “Go and collect your towel and bring it to me.” Or “grab all the plates and put them in this drawer” is enough to start. You may even hold that expectation for a while. Once they can do this independently, then add the next step. Yes, it takes time, but you are then teaching them how to do each step in order to eventually get them to do a whole chore for you.  

Children with ADHD are also called “time blind” so when you ask them to clean, they get this overwhelming feeling that it will take ‘forever.’ If you can give them a small job, they won’t feel as overwhelmed.

And don’t forget to tell them what a fabulous job they have done at the end of that one step!

TIP #4 Don’t get angry at them and add rewards

I used to get so angry at my kids for messing up the house and then fighting to clean it up. Don’t get me wrong, there are still times I absolutely do! But it never works to actually get them to clean up or not be messy again. Remember, we are working with ADHD brains here!

Rewards are so beneficial when you start out with getting your ADHD kids to help with housework, but these need to be strong and immediate!

I often use their screen time as a reward for cleaning for my children now. “I need you to unpack the dishwasher, feed your pet and make sure all your washing is in the basket; then you can have screen time!” It motivates my kids more than anything in the world.

What motivates your child? Walking the dog? Use that to encourage them. “Once you have picked up your clothes off the floor, let’s go for a walk with the dog?”

If your kids are anything like mine, they absolutely will have a meltdown when asked to clean up something at the beginning. That’s ok. Try and keep your cool.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever got from a psychologist was to make it seem that it’s ok if they make a poor choice, but they will get a benefit if they choose well.

So, try to say something like this in a really non-emotional voice.

“That’s ok. You can choose not to unpack the dishwasher. But if you choose to unpack it, then you can have your screentime.”

Then walk away. You don’t need to argue or fight.

Let them make that choice -and follow through with what you have said.

TIP #5 Add urgency and fun!

Have you ever thought about when you get a call that someone will pop over and suddenly you can clean your entire house in 20 minutes? That’s because that urgency has dumped a whole load of dopamine in your brain to motivate you.

Have you ever put on a YouTube cleaning pop music playlist and danced as you cleaned? It definitely helps add fun into the routine!

How can you add urgency and fun to your child’s chores? These are some of the things we have done in the past:

  1. Set a 5 min timer and see who can do the most cleaning in 5 mins
  2. Ask the kids to collect 5/10/15/20 things that don’t belong in a room and put them away. Get them to call out the number as they pick up each thing.
  3. Pile the washing up into a big pile and set a 10 min timer. If your child gets finished in that time, they can choose a movie to watch together.
  4. Hide a little surprise under something that needs to be picked up. The first person to find it gets a reward when everything is away.
  5. Find what chore they enjoy and get them to do that. My son liked vacuuming when he was younger, so he gets to do that. My daughter loves cooking, so she helps me make dinner.

A final little tip as well!

If you can afford it, pay for a cleaner to help you! I have a fantastic cleaning service that comes and helps me once a week for 2 hours. It helps to reset everything once a week, and you can then maintain it so much easier!

Remember, getting your children to help with the housework is a long journey not a short trip!!

Keep calm and if they refuse, that’s ok! Just try again later!

If they do help! Tell them how proud you are of them!

Let me know your top tips to getting your children with ADHD to do housework so we can get ADHD Done Differently… together!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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