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Cleaning-Related Trauma, Abuse, and Harm

(For Parents and Adult Children)

(Content warning for discussion of abuse and trauma)

Let’s talk about kids and cleaning for a minute. Specifically, why there are so many people who have cleaning-related abuse, trauma, or harm from childhood that affects their ability to maintain a clean house as adults. Many, many people, when asked to think about their early relationship with cleaning, recall that cleaning was either used as a punishment, or resulted in punishment for not being done to parents’ satisfaction (or done at all). That’s not good.

It’s not good because that association stays with people well after childhood, and manifests itself in adult life as being messy or otherwise unable to keep up with cleaning, as well as having often no desire or drive to do so. You can’t associate the act of cleaning with punishment and then expect it to be something kids want to do voluntarily or well. “I’m just going to get in trouble no matter what anyway” is not really a great motivator to try to improve.

Do you see cleaning and housekeeping negatively? Do you complain about it? Visibly show what a pain in the ass it is? That’s modeling behavior. Cleaning is Bad and Awful and you hate it, you’re displaying that to your kids, and then wondering why they don’t want to do it.

As far as punishing them for an inadequate job, not cleaning to your standards? Kids aren’t good at shit. They’re still learning, even into teenage years, when you have the added layer of “sometimes they’re assholes.” LET IMPERFECT CLEANING BE OK. If you’re flying off in a rage when they do something mostly wrong, where’s the motivation to try to get it right? Kids learn the skill of reading gradually, in stages, and with their own preferences, over years and years. Why is learning to clean different?

It’s not! And sometimes kids have things that inhibit their ability to develop the skill of reading. Same with cleaning. ADHD, anxiety, autism — they can all affect how kids learn to and are able to clean. But we don’t work with them on it like we (hopefully) do with reading. Parenting is difficult as hell, and feeling like your kids’ maid on top of everything is awful. But really look at how cleaning is dealt with in your home, and the emotions that are present around it, for you and for them. If anything cleaning related is associated with screaming, frustration, anger, punishment, or disappointment, it’s a logical consequence that kids will hate it and push back. And if you were raised that way, it’s tough to change!

I’m not saying let your kids walk all over you or live in a disaster zone. But be realistic about what you can expect of them, and how you’re interacting with them when it comes to chores. Because damage can be done that lasts a lifetime. If you’re either the parent now, or the adult who had this experience as a child, you can reframe your thinking and repair your relationship with cleaning. But you have to know it’s a problem first.


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