Several months ago, I saw a photo on Facebook of a teen’s messy room. It belonged to a college student home for a short winter break and her mom was asking friends for their advice. Most people commented that she should follow the wisdom of Princess Elsa in Frozen and “Let it go” so she could enjoy a peaceful, argument free visit with her daughter.
The picture and the comments resonated with me. When kids are small, parents try to instill in them a sense of independence and responsibility. Parents encourage their children to clean up their own messes.
I remember singing the “Clean Up” song with my children when they were small and helping them tidy up their room. In preschool, children put away toys they used before moving on the next activity. When they went to a friend’s house for a play date, I would insist that they help the other child clean up before they could leave.
So what happened? How does a skill that was learned and mastered at age six, somehow fade away at age 16?
Why Do Parents Allow Messy Rooms?
According to David Bredehoft, PhD, co-author of the book, How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children—from Toddlers to Teens—In an Age of Overindulgence, says there are a few reasons why parents are reluctant to say something to their teen about a messy room. This include:
1. Over scheduling
Teens are busy. Bredehoft says, “Between school, sports, afterschool activities etc. today’s teens are overloaded and overextended. Parents tend to be soft on structure and rules, because they don’t want to add any stress to their teens’ life.” The result is over-nurturing by the parent. Says Bredehoft, “Mom or Dad just cleans up the room rather than burdening the teen with this responsibility.”
2. BFF vs. Parenting
For many parents, getting along with their teen and avoiding arguments are paramount. They may feel their kids are home for such a short time (leaving for college soon or just visiting over winter break), they want that time to be perfect. Bredehoft explains, “On my website I refer to this as ‘best friend parents’ where the emphasis is on being friends rather than parenting the teen.”
Much of the mess in teens’ rooms comes from them having too many material possessions. Bredehoft says, “With so many things, teens tend not to value these items or assume if something is lost or broken, Mom and Dad will just buy a new one.”
4. Why Make a Big Deal Out of It?
A teen’s messy room may be something parents want to overlook to avoid conflict. But if deep down parents are angered and frustrated by clothes all over the floor and/or empty food cartoons strewn across a teen’s room, holding in their feelings may lead to a bigger blowout argument. Parents may feel unappreciated, especially if they wind up going in to clean the room themselves because they can’t take the mess.
Bredehoft says, “If a teen is just home from college for a few days and parents are comfortable just closing the door, a messy room isn’t a big problem. However, when teens live at home for an extended period, parents should have some standards and expectations when it comes to keeping a room clean.”
[More advice from a college student to kids returning home for vacations here.]
Teens benefit from parents outlining clear house rules. Victoria Taylor, Ph.D. and Director of Child and Adolescent Services at The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, explains, “Maintaining a sort of structure or set of polite behaviors in the family actually helps emerging adults in the outside world.” While a parent may choose to “let it go,” a roommate, spouse or host is not going to be as understanding about an adult who is unable or unwilling to pick up his things or contribute to the house.
As for avoiding helping teens avoid stress, letting them leave their room a mess may actually have the opposite effect. When a teen can’t find a homework assignment or a borrowed sweater because their room is messy that causes stress. Teens actually feel less stressed when they have structure. Taylor says, “ Parents fragilizing older children can be harmful. In the long run, there is nothing less stressful for a teenager about having messy room and no set of responsibilities.” Teaching and instilling organizational skills will help young adults live happier, more productive lives when they are in college, at work or have a family of their own.
What Can Parents Do About a Teen’s Messy Room?
The best way to get teens to keep their rooms clean and also contribute with household chores is to set up these expectations when they are young. Routine helps children to learn a skill and eventually it becomes an automatic behavior.
If a parent has not set up house/room rules regarding cleanliness, it may be a bit more challenging. Bredehoft encourages parents to be honest. He says, “Calmly saying, ‘I feel frustrated when your room is in total disarray’ is a good starting point.
Teens and young adults may be resistant and see no real reason why “their” room needs to be clean. Avoid yelling or belittling a teen over a messy room. Instead, enlist the teen as a partner in the process rather than an adversary. Taylor suggests parents validate their teen’s feelings but not be distracted from addressing the issue. Taylor says, “If necessary, negotiate by saying ‘Is there something I can do to help?’ or ‘Could you just start with the clothes today?’
[More helpful reminders about teens and parenting in Note to Self, here.]
While a messy room is annoying, ultimately parents need to decide if this is something they want to address with their teen. Bredehoft says, “Parents should not be afraid to talk with their teens honestly about their expectations when they are living in the family home.”
Randi Mazzella has been a freelance writer for over ten years. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications including Teen Life, Your Teen, NJ Family and Barista Kids. She draws much of her inspiration from her crazy and fun life adventures with her own three children.