If you have an anxious child or teen, or one with challenging behaviors or a disability/struggling with extra challenges – then you know that getting them to do chores can be really tough.
Unfortunately well meaning parents with these kids/teens sometimes make mistakes in setting chore. These mistakes can make things worse for them and their young person. Here are seven common mistakes to look out for.
Mistake 1 - Failing to set chores at all
When we are parenting kids or teens who are stressed, have challenging behaviours, emotional health problems and tricky behaviour – chores feels like the last thing to worry about.
Parents just "let it go" because other things seem more important. We think our kids have enough on their plate. We are unsure what they are really capable of. It's easier to do it ourselves.
But one recent study found that kids and teens who have had chores and responsibilities from an early age have better relationships and were more self sufficient as adults than those who were not given chores. Another study found that teens who contributed to household chores were happier than those without them.
These results also apply to young people who have anxiety, emotional health challenges and other challenging behaviour. In fact, chores may be even more important for these kids and teens. These young people need opportunities to feel good about themselves, contribute and have structure to their lives. Chores can provide this.
Mistake 2 - Failing to spell out the specifics of the chores – what/by when/how
Asking kids and teens to “clean up their room” is like a manager to tell employees to “communicate with others effectively”. Both are good suggestions, but both have a much higher rate of success if there are specific suggestions about exactly what, how and when.
This is especially true for kids/teens who deal with stress and worry, and who have extra challenges to manage. This group of young people often have a lot on their mind. Sometimes their thinking skills are being taxed by life generally. They are more likely to misunderstand information or make assumptions about things - even when we think we are being clear. They need us to be extremely detailed and specific with our requests.
When you set a chore - write down the exact steps you expect to be taken, how to do it and when the steps need to be finished. Make sure there is a visual record (pictures for kids, written document on their phone for older teens) and put in as much detail about the steps as possible.
Mistake 3 - Expecting the child/teen to find ways of remembering and motivating themselves to do the chore by themselves
All kids and teens struggle to remember to complete a chore, to say nothing of the mental strength and skill it takes to put aside the other interesting things you want to do to and do a chore right through from start to finish.
For young people with additional emotional challenges, this can be almost impossible.
Asking a child/teen to do a job is not enough. It is important that we help out, coach and support these kids and teens to get the chores done.
We need to brainstorm with them triggers, reminders, systems and routines they can use to help them get it done. Then we need to help them implement these. It could be as simple as notes, posters, phone alarms, tying chores to another activity or having reminder stickers in different places around the house.
We also need to brainstorm with them the systems and methods they can use to make the chore more enjoyable, easier to do and less painful. And again, help them implement these things. Some families I know have “Job Music” that gets played while job time happens. For older teens this might happen via headphones. Some families break chores down so they only take small numbers of minutes each day. Some families have chore time down while having a conversation about the day.
Mistake 4 - Failing to help children see the benefit of chores to themselves
It is important to try to help children and teens see chores as having positive benefits for them – to give them reasons that it is worth their while for it to happen. This doesn’t mean providing rewards.
It means finding the reasons and benefits from the outcome of the chore and making sure young people know about it.
For children and teens with extra needs, sometimes we need to spell this out in the way we talk about it. For example:
“This room looks great, now we can see where everything is”
“It’s nice to have the dishwasher unpacked early, we’ve got some time to sit down”
“Thanks for doing that laundry, I feel a lot less stressed not having to do that myself – I really appreciate you being such a help”
Mistake 5 - Failing to follow up quickly when chores don’t get done
It’s easier to just do it yourself when kids and teens don’t do their chores. Or to ignore it and just be quietly (or loudly) resentful about how much you do and how little the kids do. Or question whether you should even be asking the child/teen to do the chore in the first place.
But kids/teens with challenges need us to follow up when chores don't get done - as soon as it gets missed.
This means we need to monitor that chores are happening (sometimes in real time). Sometimes we need to be physically present in the room. Sometimes we need to gently insist that nothing else happens until the chore is done. Sometimes we need to ask the young person how we can help them make it less painful, how to remember it next time, how to motivate them to get it done.
I know this is not easy. I know that there are no simple solutions to this. But I see parents with grit and determination do this amazingly well all the time - and so I know it is possible.
And in the long term, this effort pays off.
Mistake 6 - Giving pocket money for all chores
There are three problems with giving pocket money in exchange for chores.
The first is that we want kids and teens with challenges and worry to feel good about themselves and to see themselves as contributors and helpers when they do chores. If they are getting paid to do the chore, then this is less likely to happen.
Second, parents sometimes get resentful about kids and teens getting paid to clean up their stuff – and this is not good for the young person.
The third problem is the one I see most often: one day, the child or teen just really doesn’t feel like walking the dog, washing the dishes or whatever other chore they've been assigned. They decide they are happy to not do it, and just skip getting the pocket money. Then parents have few options. Unless you are completely happy for a chore not to get completed, then I would suggest chores don’t get tied to pocket money.
Some families have a good system whereby the main weekly chores are done regardless but the child/teen can earn “extra” money if they do some extra jobs.
Mistake 7 – Trying to do too much, too quickly
For kids and teens dealing with worry and other challenges, it is better to start really small when it comes to chores. A small list and expectations which are easily manageable is important so that the young person sees themselves as successful. It also helps parents monitor and keep on top of expectations.
Start small. For yourself, and for your young person.
But do start. Good luck!
Our online resource Calm Kid Central has videos for parents/carers on helping children do chores regularly and on time. Each video has a tip sheet for the fridge or pin-up board. To find out more, click below.
Both When Life Sucks for Teens and When Life Sucks for Kids have chapters for kids and teens themselves on how to manage chores and expectations (called “My parents are always nagging me” and “My parents always make me do things I really don’t want to do”). These chapters are designed to help kids and teens see chores in a different light. For more information about these books – click on the images below.
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