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Cleaning Up Your Mess*

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

Every parent wants a child that is “responsible and fun to be around”. Children will enjoy being this way too. Unfortunately, traumatized children forget who they are and believe a lie instead. Trauma introduces the belief that “the world is a scary place, caregivers can’t be trusted and I am broken and damaged goods”. In addition, they believe that “no one could love me…People will get rid of me just like everyone else…I am stupid…I can only trust myself…Life is not safe”, and on it goes.

A big lie is that it is not ok to make a mistake. This is because a life of shame makes mistakes feel like a reminder that “I am a mistake too”. Fortunately, if we have believed a lie, we can also choose to believe the truth. This doesn’t always come easily. Attachment research calls this cycle “rupture and repair”. Every family has a rupture in a relationship. The healing for traumatized children comes in the repair. In that respect, a rupture is desirable. It allows the attachment relationship to be rebuilt. New Positive experiences can replace negative experiences from their past. A simple strategy is for parents to ask children: “How are you going to clean up this mess?”

A mess is a metaphor for a problem that children create in their relationships and daily living. For example, Hitting their sibling over taking a toy is a mess. Not following through on doing chores and forcing mom to repeat herself several times is a mess. Throwing a tantrum and refusing to brush their teeth is a mess. Forgetting their homework and getting a failing grade is a mess. You get the idea…

Our job as parents is to teach children how to clean up their messes and be more responsible and fun to be around. Instead of nagging, complaining or lecturing, trying asking how the child plans on cleaning up the mess they have made? This is also a way to increase leverage. At some point a child will want something from the parent. When they do you can simple refer the child back to the need to clean up their mess before you give them what they are wanting. This reinforces the concept of working together. You help me and I help you. This is how we do things in this family…

A typical response to the question is “I don’t know” to avoid taking responsibility. Don’t engage in a fight. That is how the child distracts you from the problem in front of them. In reply a parents offer some of their ideas on how the child can clean up their mess. The best idea from mom and dad are the tough, most undesirable ones. Children don’t want to do the tough ones. They want to do the easy ones. Offering the tough idea will force a child to engage in the discussion and present a better idea. This will get their thinking brains online so that they start to consider better ways to treat others and make family life more fun.

MESSES are Mom’s LEVERAGE:

Sometimes (OK, often) children will not follow through on their plan to clean up their messes. That’s fine. Parents now have another opportunity for “rupture and repair” by waiting until the child wants something from them…and you know they will.

Son: “Hey mom, can I go to Johnny’s house to play.”
Mom: “Oh wow, Johnny has that new video game you have been talking about, right?”
Son: “Yeah, it is so cool. Can I go?”
Mom: “It really would be cool but it is soooo sad!”
Son: “Sad?”
Mom: “Yes, there is still this mess you made with that tantrum yesterday and all those toys are still all over the living room. Remember how you made that plan to say you were sorry and clean them up?”
Son: “Kind of…”
Mom: “So take all the time you need to clean up that mess and then you can go to Johnny’s.”

You can only imagine the type of negotiation that the son might try at this point, right? He might even choose to get angry and throw another tantrum. More opportunities for rupture and repair. This is where mom MUST stand her ground and stay as cool and empathic as possible. Empathy has a way of keeping everyones brains level and focused on the problem on not in a heated game of “whose to blame”. With practice on how to clean up their messes, a child will learn to be more “responsible and fun to be around”.

  • Original concept for this tool is from the book “Love and Logic”

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