We’re still talking about messy rooms! Send us a picture of your teen’s messy room to receive a FREE book about teens! Reference the post below (republished from last week on Parenthetical) to learn more about helping teens manage their personal space.
Are you tempted to put a condemned sign on your teen’s bedroom door? Do you suspect that all your missing cups and dishes are buried beneath the debris? If this sounds like your child’s room, you might be relieved to know that you are not alone. Dealing with messy rooms is an ongoing issue for many parents of teens. For a variety of reasons many teens have bedrooms that parents wish the health department would condemn.
Why are teens’ rooms often so messy?
Whether parents like it or not, most teens view their bedrooms as their personal territory and believe that they have a right to control their space. This is tied to the fact that adolescence is a time for teens to establish their independence from parents and assert themselves as unique, self-sufficient individuals who control their own lives. What could be a better way to do this than to “mark” one’s territory and do with it as one pleases? When parents try to control a teen’s personal space, it often makes the teen even more determined to declare his right to have the freedom to do with the space as he chooses. Some teens even view their messy rooms as a badge of honor—a relatively harmless but colorful way to assert their independence and control while also irritating their parents.
The brains of adolescents undergo major reorganization. Some of the most important changes occur in the part of the brain responsible for skills like planning, making decisions, and organizing. While scientists don’t generally study the relationship between teen brain and messy rooms, it’s reasonable to think that some of these brain changes might affect how teens organize and plan their lives and their spaces—including their bedrooms.
Most teens have busy lives—school, homework, friends, sports, clubs — and keeping their rooms clean is often a low priority. Sure, it might be nice to have an uncluttered place to relax or do homework, but it may not be worth the effort. Adults are usually motivated to keep their homes looking nice because it reflects who they are and what they’ve accomplished. But for teens a clean room is a lot less important than a having a space to call their own (even it if their parents call it is a pigsty).
So, what can parents do about a messy room?
Because messy rooms are in part an issue of values and personal preferences, there is no simple response that will work for every family. Some parents may not too bothered by their teen’s messiness, while others will find it extremely annoying and a challenge to their authority. Below are some suggestions about how parents might approach the issue.
1. It can help to recognize that messy rooms do, in part, serve a developmental purpose for teens.
Reminding yourself that it’s not personal nor a reflection of who you are as a parent and homeowner (even if it sometimes feels that way), can make it easier to bear. Try to remember back to your messy days as a teen (assuming they take after you!) and recognize that soon your teen will be out on their own and will eventually develop some more orderly habits. If not, at least you won’t have to live with them.
2. Decide how much mess you can tolerate.
For some families, the solution is as simple having the teen keep their door closed and allowing them to live in his or her squalor (remember: out of sight is out of mind). That can be a reasonable solution if parents are willing to live with it and the mess doesn’t spread to the rest of the house. During the teen years it’s important to pick your battles and there may be many more important issues than a messy room.
If the mess really bothers you or it’s beginning to spread throughout the house, it’s OK to set some rules. It’s not unreasonable to have rules related to health and cleanliness as well as shared family expectations. For example, leaving dirty dishes can be a health hazard and invite insects and mice. It can also mean that there aren’t enough dishes for the rest of the family. While your teen may declare that their room is their castle, you have a right to declare that you own the castle. If you do lay down the law, be aware that it will probably take some effort for you to keep on top of things and ensure that the rules are followed. One simple way to increase compliance is to allow for natural consequences. For example, clothes that don’t get put in the hamper, don’t get washed. Stuff that gets left around the house gets put in a basket in the basement.
3. Consider lending a helping hand to help your teen reduce the clutter and organize their things.
Teens can sometimes be overwhelmed by the task of organizing and cleaning. Periodically work with them to get rid of old clothes and items they’ve outgrown. Buy some baskets and crates and show them how to organize items that go together. Get a hamper for their dirty clothes.
Although calling the local health department may seem like an obvious solution to a messy room, there are more effective and less harsh ways to deal with this common problem. There are many reasons for why many teens seem to live in squalor. By picking our battles, providing help and guidance, and allowing natural consequences to occur, we can help guide our children to become more organized, neater, and more responsible people — and better housemates now and in the future.
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Stephen Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. He and his wife, Gay Eastman, have been married for more than 30 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers.