Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's Never Too Early to Start Teaching Daily Living Skills

I want to tell you about a client who I will call Bob. Bob was in his late forties when I met him. He was the kind of guy who had an intense dislike for new experiences. He thrived on structure and routine. He also had social anxiety and his only friends were online. He lived with his mother his whole life, and then his mother died.

Bob was grieving his mother intensely because she was the one real person in his life (other than seeing his relatives once a year). He also had been left completely stranded - his mother had done everything for him. She had grocery shopped, cooked, cleaned, paid bills, done the laundry, done the banking, etc.

I was called in to help him learn to do all these activities of daily living. Bob learned well, and was able to keep living independently. It just seems to me that he went through a lot of unnecessary hardship at a time that was a very difficult time for him.

Bob is not alone. I have had so many clients where they never learned skills such as cooking and budgeting in the home. It is much harder to learn these skills as an adult in a psychiatric facility.

I guess what I am trying to say is, start teaching daily living skills as soon as you can.

I'm a mom - I get it. It takes a lot longer to teach your child to do an activity than it does to just do it for him or her. It also will likely continue to take longer for a long time before the skill is mastered enough that it actually saves you time. This length of time is even longer if your child has special needs.

However, it's worth it. Consider it time spent on therapy, because it is. Take the child's abilities and needs into consideration, but here are some ideas for places to start:
  • Dressing and undressing independently. If you would like ideas, check out my post on Hygiene and Grooming Interventions. It is also important to learn to put their own clothes away.
  • Basic laundry is one of the tasks that most people seem to be able to learn to do. Not the kind of laundry where you have to check all the tags etc., so first remove any clothes that require special care. Using a stepstool can help even a small child do laundry.
  • Using the microwave. At least with the microwave there is a very low risk of fire. Ensure proper use of oven mitts to handle hot items. With practice, it can be quite helpful to assign your child the task of microwaving an item such as vegetables while you are cooking supper.
  • When it comes to money management, ensure you talk through your reasoning for your financial decisions, to model good budgeting. For example, if you are choosing to not buy an item, use it as a chance to explain that you are not buying it because you cannot afford it, or because you are saving up to buy something else.
  • An allowance can be a great learning tool. We help our kids split their allowance into saving, spending, and give-away.
  • Cleaning a bathroom sink and mirror can be a fun activity if your child likes bubbles and spraying things. With my kids, I use a vinegar and water spray bottle for most of my cleaning so that I do not have to worry about them contacting chemicals.
  • Bring your kids with you grocery shopping, and talk about which products you are purchasing and why. I know it is hard, but how else are they going to learn? You can start by bringing them just when you are going for a small trip.
  • Using a calendar. As soon as the child is able to write, he or she can write activities on the family calendar. 
I have heard the argument from parents that they do things for the child because the child is so busy with activities. The child is likely going to always be busy, even when he or she is grown up. Time-management is also a skill that needs to be learned. An important part of time management is making your activities of daily living a priority. Kids need to learn to do the things they have to do so that they can do the things they want to do. Assigning your child chores can help with this process.

It does not have to all happen right away. However, slowly working on these things will help raise kids who are prepared for the world, and who are better prepared to handle negative life experiences such as mental illness, or the death of a parent.


  1. Excellent post as ever.
    You should have seen the first time I tried to boil an egg, it ended up boiled, fried, scrambled and then thrown in the bin too early (luckily this was before I moved out and I soon asked for lessons). Still don't iron though, it's not that I don't know how just prefer not to.
    Seriously though I do think that there is potentially a role for more of these types of aspects in schools, not to say that it isn't a responsibility of parents but to catch people up who don't perhaps get those sorts of support at home. A role for OTs even??

  2. Thanks Kirsty. I agree - we can't rely on all parents to teach their kids these things. Sometimes the parents don't have the skills themselves. We learned a little bit about cooking (mostly just baking muffins) and sewing in Home Ec in school, but it sure wasn't very practical. I still don't really sew except to replace buttons :) I could definitely see an OT consultative role here.

    I definitely think we can't rely on all parents to teach their children these things.

  3. As a parent of a mildly disabled child who has struggled with every little skill for his whole life, sometimes I am just weary of the struggle. He gets frustrated and upset, which is unsettling to everyone. I have a special ed background, and have spent years patiently working with young children, plenty of time and adequate finances, but still I don't do a great job of teaching life skills to my own son. I am sure it is so much harder for parents who lack these things. Thanks for all of your great ideas, I do feel encouraged that I might find some practical, real help in your blog!



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