Navigating the battle of the teenage messy room

Teenage tidiness may be too much to expect; can you compromise?

New York TimesNovember 12, 2012 


Kelsey Rosenfeld, 14, in her room in Hillsdale, N.J., Oct. 24, 2012. Teenagers are on a long march toward autonomous adulthood and mastering the clean room is a blip on their map.


Kristyna Krueger took a deep breath, girding herself to enter her 14-year-old son Brandon’s bedroom.

“Every drawer is open,” Krueger said, speaking on the phone from her home in Lake Ozark, Mo. “You cannot walk without stepping on clothes, cords for charging things, cologne and body-spray bottles.”

She continued: “The bottom of the closet, that’s where his clothes are. On top of shoes. Which are on top of papers. And empty shoe boxes.”

Yet Krueger’s tone was surprisingly matter-of-fact. With two older teenagers at home, she has become inured to the fury and frustration familiar to parents who have ventured into the teenage wasteland their offspring call a bedroom.

What is a parent to do?

After consultations with dozens of parents, teenagers and professionals who specialize in adolescent mess, there is good news: Although teenage tidiness may be too much to hope for, detente may be within reach. Here, then, is a guide to navigating that battleground.

Why are you so mad?

“Parents are embarrassed,” said Deborah Silberberg, an owner of ShipShape, a professional organizing company. “They wonder whether it represents their lack of parenting control. It’s hard for parents to have to let go of their kid.”

Guilt and fear are also factors. Does the mess mean that parents have poorly prepared their children to care for themselves?

It’s not about you

As Barbara Greenberg, a psychologist and an author of “Teenage as a Second Language,” observed, “The more you make it an issue, the more you’ll prolong the problem.”

“It’s in their nature to assert boundaries and say no,” she said. “So parents have to do what seems paradoxical: Let it go. Otherwise, the kid will have identified it as a wonderful way to act out.”

Teenagers are on a march toward autonomous adulthood, as psychologists like Marsha Levy-Warren, the author of “The Adolescent Journey,” point out. And mastering the clean room is a blip on their map.

“Kids are so preoccupied during adolescence with who they want to be that they are inside themselves,” Levy-Warren said. “They lose sight of what’s outside. They don’t even see their rooms. There’s a lot for them to figure out.”

Homework. Social tribes. After-school activities. Sexuality. Drugs. Hygiene. Driving.

In the moment, which is where they exist, it can feel overwhelming.

“Most kids are quite chaotic internally, and rooms reflect the degree of chaos,” Levy-Warren said.

A cave of one’s own

His mother may call his room an “absolute wreck,” but what does it mean to Brandon Krueger, a freshman who drills with the marching band at 6:45 a.m., practices football daily, plays three games a week and maintains an A-minus average?

“My privacy, my place to relax and to get some peace,” he replied in an email. “I don’t clean it very often. I am busy and tired all the time.”

Rebels without a clue

Parenting blogs reverberate with cries for guidance about how to deal with teenagers and their rooms. But there is a parallel universe on teenagers’ blogs, where teenagers seek advice about how to deal with the mess.

Prominent among the cleanup tips: “Get in the mood by blasting your favorite music” and “Limit Facebook breaks to 30 minutes.”

As Levy-Warren observed, sometimes teenagers really don’t know how to pick up after themselves.

“Or they’re not ready to,” she added, “because that’s eliminating the role of the adult who picked up after them in childhood. And some kids aren’t ready to let go.”

Your space, my place

There are piles of parenting books about adolescent clutter, advocating strategies that range from draconian to determined indifference. But on one thing they all agree: Define boundaries.

Teenagers want to rule their bedroom like a kingdom. In exchange, parents should insist that the mess not creep throughout the home.

It is easier for a parent to wash the dirty plate left on the kitchen counter than to enforce those boundaries. But establishing public-private territorial respect is nonetheless part of the parenting job description, said Dena Gardi, the mother of an 18-year-old and 13-year-old twins in San Francisco.

“You say it over and over,” Gardi said. “‘Public spaces are public spaces! Move the backpack.’ And they’ll say: ‘Oh, really, I have to do it? OK, OK.’ But then they walk away. And I say, ‘No, pick it up.’ And I’ll stand there till it’s done.”

Pare down all the stuff

Part of the problem is that most teenagers have too much stuff, said Silberberg, the organizer.

“Let them volunteer at a homeless shelter,” she said. “Say, ‘People love to donate to toddlers, but teenagers get zero.’ Then give them a box to fill. They will feel like they’re doing something valuable.”

And break down the cleaning into small tasks, Levy-Warren suggested.

“There’s something symbolic about making a neat bed to get into at night,” she said. “It’s about being able to end and start the day with a clean slate.”

What about that zoo of stuffed animals? Offer the teen a bin, tell her to select six favorites and rotate the rest.

Krueger’s children must put laundry in a hamper on a specific day. And if they howl at the last minute for favorite jeans? Missed deadline; wash them yourself.

Take a ‘together’ approach

Krueger decided to start a Saturday ritual, asking her children whether they wanted help cleaning. The household mood lightened.

“It’s become some of the best times we have together,” she said. “Letting go of that control has changed my relationship with all three. When you make the bed together, it’s a different feeling for both of us.”

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