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How To Get Teenagers To Clean Their Rooms

First Posted: 10/05/11 01:44 PM ET Updated: 12/30/11 11:13 AM ET

Dear Susan,

My kids are in their teens. They’re good in school and are well behaved. But their bedrooms look like tornadoes went through them! When they finally clean up, I find out they just shoved their junk under their beds. How can I get them to clean their rooms and keep them that way?

Signed,
The Maid

Dear Maid,

Your question is very popular, especially among parents of tweens and teens who long for the day when they could walk from their child’s bedroom door to the closet without having to navigate around random objects strewn all over the floor.

Here's the thing. Your children don’t have a problem -- you do! They don’t mind having dirty clothes mixed in with potato chip bags and magazines. When you say, “This room is a health hazard! How can you live in here?”, your kids probably don't understand. They know where that lip gloss is -- it’s on the bookshelf, underneath the school library book that was due a few weeks ago. And, teenagers often wear their messy rooms as a badge of honor, a way to express individuality and edginess without crossing any serious lines.

So don’t obsess on having their rooms be spotless. You’re going to be spinning your wheels if you try to get your messy youngsters to clean their rooms just because they’re a mess. Instead, try saying something like this:

“Hey kids, I’ve got an announcement. I understand that you’re fine with the way your rooms look. It’s hard to imagine, but I get it...you aren’t bothered by the mess. But I am. And since I’m the one paying the rent/mortgage, this is the deal: Every night, we’re going to have a 5-minute roundup. You’re to gather whatever trash, laundry, or clothes that need to be put away in those five minutes. That means “put away”, as opposed to hidden in a closet or under the bed. This isn’t optional, and I understand if it seems “stupid” or a waste of time. But I want to feel good about working hard, paying bills and making sure we have this great place to live; this is your contribution to that. Any questions?”
Be prepared for your kids to grumble, resist, or tell you they’re too busy doing “homework.” Let them vent, but don’t engage in negotiations; the clearer and more decisive you are about this new nightly ritual, the easier it will go. There are some parents who will prefer a once-a-week, more in depth cleaning session instead. But my experience has been that a nightly routine of tidying up tends to work better for many teens. If you prefer, you may add in a weekly or monthly serious cleaning. This will be a chance for your kids to become familiar with the vacuum cleaner and cleaning products. While they're hard at work, play music, or bake something tempting in the kitchen that they can look forward to after all the dirty work is done.

In my counseling practice, I see many kids who confess that they enjoy cleaning, once they get going, and even take pride in looking at their room after they’ve put in some hard work spiffing it up.

If you aim for white glove perfection, you’ll be setting yourself up for power struggles. By establishing cleaning rituals, and letting your kids moan, groan -- and even backtalk -- about cleaning without engaging, your home will be a little brighter. Just remember to acknowledge them for their effort; we all find it easier to do things we don’t enjoy when we feel appreciated, rather than criticized.

Yours in parenting support,
Susan

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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