Moms like me have found themselves sitting on the floor of their child’s room picking up every Lego, Transformer piece, or Barbie accessory our youngster failed to place in the proper bin or box. After all, we paid for all of those expensive toys.
Fast forward 10 years and the toys which once covered the floor are replaced with all manner of clothing, footwear, books, papers, wrappers, glasses of old milk, bags of chips, dirty plates, toiletries, food packaging, water bottles, and wet towels: welcome to a teenager’s domain.
Frustrated parents demand teens neaten up, and teens, promising to comply “later,” never seem to get to it. Too often the dialogue digresses into yelling and nagging and more yelling, culminating with a territorial conflict the likes of which has not been seen since the colonies declared their independence.
“This is my house!” the parent asserts, followed by the teen staking a claim of his own to the room itself.
Carl Pickhardt, author of “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence,” writes that, to parents, “the messy room can feel like an affront to domestic order, representing a ‘disrespect’ for the more neatly kept home they value.”
Mary, whose son Jack attends the Academy of American Studies in Queens, claims her requests that he clean his room “go in one ear and out the other” until she threatens to call his coach, preventing him from attending a game. She settles for dusting and vacuuming the room once a week.
Linda, parent of a Brooklyn high school teen, is resigned to closing the door to her son’s room “for her own sanity.”
Parents like Mary and Maxine, also of Queens, clean up when their teens are not in their bedrooms. The boys temporarily grouse about the trespass, but never offer to help. Yet, there is anger and resentment, because the moms recognize that the boys should be responsible for caring for their own possessions.
Mary says, “if he has time to play video games, he has time to clean his room.”
Maxine has come to recognize that her son Peter, a student at Archbishop Molloy High School, always has excuses and something more important to do. She also says that he seems to have “an acute awareness of everything in the room” and points out that even a discarded napkin could contain notes for the start of his first novel. She also says Peter, like many teens today, has too much stuff and runs out of space to stow it.
Peter tells his mother she is a nag for begging, whining, and pleading with him to clean up. She is aggravated by his indifference and says, “it takes effort, as does everything else in life.”
What’s going on?
Unfortunately, parents have an entirely different perspective than teenagers, who often do not prioritize neatness. Parents see red when teens find time to relax amidst their busy schedules, but can’t find time to neaten up, and teens don’t understand why cleanup cannot wait indefinitely. At the same time, teens look at their rooms as sanctuaries, where they can unwind and escape other people’s rules.
Although a parent may view teens’ lack of compliance to tidy up as selfishness, Lori Hiller, a Brooklyn social worker, says teens don’t understand why parents care so much about their rooms. Although they tend to be self-centered, they aren’t setting out to upset their parents. “They just feel parents should have nothing to do with it,” says Hiller.
So-called “lazy” teens may just be “chronically messy, well-intentioned, and poorly organized,” Adele Faber, Long Island co-author of “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk,” tells me.
Pickhardt correlates a neat room with an organized, productive life.
“A room reflects a disorganized internal state: it is an expression of his world.”
He tells me the state of a teen’s room is not an insignificant issue and is a reflection of who is in control. Young adolescents make a statement of independence by insisting on living according to their own rules, he says, but they need to understand they must live on their parents’ terms until they are on their own.
He notes that parents never really have control over their children, they just have an ever-decreasing ability to obtain consent as the child passes through adolescence.
Problems with just shutting the door
Direct consequences can result from constant disarray.
Crunching noises may surprise the parent who enters a teen’s inner sanctum unprepared, inadvertently rupturing CDs hidden under layers of clothing.
While Jack struggles to find his bus pass in the morning rush, other teens stress over misplaced car keys or matching shoes. If they are tardy, they can make other family members late for school or work and put everyone in a foul mood at the start of the day.
Pickhardt firmly believes that parents who allow themselves to be barred from their teen’s room are giving teens license to experiment with illicit activities. He says closing the door is self-serving and such a laissez-faire attitude sends a strong signal that more serious infractions will not be addressed.
He also does not condone random searches without a strong suspicion that something is very wrong based on uncharacteristic behavior or problems at school. If a parent finds troubling material in the room, it is because the teen left it there for her to find and did not have the courage to ask for help dealing with it, he adds.
He tells me the challenge is to manage our expectations and give our children the tools they need to organize themselves. He says teens feel as if they are more in control of their world when their rooms are in order.
In extreme cases, a filthy room can actually be unsanitary if mold, bacteria, or fungus begin to grow or if leftover food and dishes attract mice, ants, or cockroaches.
Other common mistakes and real solutions
Hiller doesn’t think a parent should clean a teen’s room any more than she should be doing a teen’s homework or calling his employer.
“Part of teens learning independence is taking care of their things,” she says.
She adds that doing it for them will lead them to believe that a parent will always be there to clean up their mess and teach them that they are not responsible for the consequences of their own actions. It is up to the parent to decide how far she wants the conflict to go if the teen refuses, and at some level, the conflict can cause a permanent rift. At the same time, she says direct threats to spur teens to act won’t help either.
Neither Faber nor Pickhardt condone yelling or punishing teens for a messy room. Pickhardt warns that, “yelling shows helpless disrespect in not getting their way [which] can lead to use of intemperate words as weapons,” as parents sometimes “shoot from the hip” and threaten unreasonable punishments in anger.
In place of punishment, which he believes should be reserved for serious infractions, Pickhardt suggests “an exchange,” where the parent will only agree to do a favor for the teen, like driving her to the mall, in exchange for some cleanup. Pickhardt also says that parents who want that room clean cannot abnegate all responsibility, but need to make an effort to supervise. Even if the parent knows that the room is likely to return to its post-apocalyptic look in a half hour, it will not have been a waste of time, because the teen will see that cleaning up is not an insurmountable task, he says.
Parents who may be too angry should remove themselves from the situation for a short time, says Faber. Sound advice, as parents may be tired, stressed, and short on patience. Pickhardt tells emotional parents to talk to a friend or spouse and otherwise model anger management techniques before they hit a boiling point in front of their teenager.
Faber says parents should figure out some ground rules together with their teen since “cleanup is a constant factor in all our lives.” She suggests that parents empathize with their teens’ concerns and organizational challenges before brainstorming together. This helps to avoid repetition of the same old argument and gives teens some ownership of the solution, which might include the addition of new shelves, bookcases, or bins.
When parents stress over the lack of care teens afford their pricier possessions, Faber encourages them to discuss it. For example, if a teen contributed towards the price of hard-won designer jeans and the parent finds them rolled in a ball under a wet towel, the parent can tell the teen that such a sight discourages her from wanting to participate in similar purchases in the future.
Faber disapproves of nagging and advocates for a creative non-authoritarian approach, with a little humor thrown in, when possible. In contrast, Pickhardt would have parents persevere, even if it is perceived as nagging. He tells me parents’ repetition will wear down their teens’ resistance.
“Nagging is honorable work,” he says, recommending parents gently remind teens about an earlier request and ask again.
If the teen continually refuses to clean up, Pickhardt advises the parent to put the mess in a large trash bag (or several, as the case may be) and place it by the rubbish. He says that will motivate the teen to awaken from his lethargy and ask about alternatives.
Will they ever reform?
According to Hiller, “there are sloppy people and neater ones — and sloppy ones that clean up ever so often.”
Others agree, though Pickhardt regards teens’ ability to overcome this problem as an important anchor for adolescent growth and development. So, maybe there is hope.
Fighting with your teen over this each day just causes tension. If you try to deal with this only once a week or at another agreed upon regular interval, the teen is less likely to react negatively.
We all know teens are encountering a more complicated world. Still, in this child-centric age, it would be nice if more teens made an effort to adhere to parents’ rules without prodding or creative intervention. A parent can dream, can’t she?
Risa C. Doherty is an award-winning writer who survived her children’s teen years.