By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose
One question I hear quite a bit from parents of teens is: How do I get them to keep their room clean? It seems a reasonable question, especially given the fact that many teens spend quite a bit of time in their room.
Plus, it’s a good life lesson, right? Learning how to keep your living area tidy is a good life skill. Future roommates will always appreciate tidiness. So why does this issue become such a problem in many families? Some kids, just like some adults, are either more cluttered or more tidy.
We have learned quite a bit about the biological basis of clutter vs. tidiness. Some people have a much lower level of tolerance for visual clutter. For these people, a tidy room actually produces a sense of calm and relaxation, whereas a cluttered area produces anxiety and a need to tidy up. More clutter produces more agitation and a higher need to create order.
Cluttered people have a much higher tolerance for disorder. Seeing a cluttered room does not produce any anxiety. They might not actually enjoy living in clutter, but it doesn’t produce enough anxiety to start tidying up. Even if they do get an urge to clean their room, it usually won’t stay that way. Placing an empty water bottle on the bedside table doesn’t even register in their mind. For a very tidy person, it is worth the effort to get up and throw it away, so they don’t have to keep thinking about it. A cluttered person won’t remember the bottle after setting it down.
So, if your teen is a typically cluttered person, you might be fighting against their natural tendencies toward clutter. You might also be dealing with your natural tendencies as a parent.
My biggest suggestion for dealing with a teen’s messy room: Just close the door. If it bothers you every time you see the clutter, don’t give your eyes the chance to see it. Making comments while walking by will do nothing to change how it looks, and definitely won’t motivate your teen to do anything about it.
In fact, making comments on the state of the room is probably a factor in why teens tend to be so surly when parents come into their room. I have had teens tell me that when their parent “visits” them in their room, the teen is prepared for some negative comment, whether it’s about the room, homework, spending too much time on their phones, etc.
But what about when it becomes a health hazard? Most teens see right through this argument. For most teens, it’s a pretty wobbly argument. Yes, a cluttered room harbors more dust, but clutter doesn’t produce more dust. If your teen is allergic to dust it is much more important to focus on weekly laundering of bedding.
Another suggestion to consider is to plan a monthly cleaning of the room with parent and teen participating. That way, on a monthly basis the room is decluttered and dusted. The room will slowly go back to its cluttered state, but at least it might last for a few days. If you decide to do this together, promise yourself that you will not make any snide comments or hold your nose when you have found a particularly ripe item!
The teen’s room, like many other aspects of raising a teen, requires more tolerance and calmness than any other stage of a child’s life. Sometimes, it is much better to just close the door (literally and metaphorically) than it is to make a fuss.
Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org