THE BLOG
08/07/2015 04:16 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2016

Messy Toddler to Cluttered Teen: Meanings That Lurk Underneath the Mess

Babies make messes in diapers and sometimes even squirt us while we're changing them. Toddlers food trays often have more food swished around the tray than in their tummies. Tweens try on six outfits every morning throw the unworn choices on the floor before school despite the clothes laid out the night before. Teens create havoc with papers, clothes, iPads, books, and videos scattered across their rooms. It's like a minefield, hard to walk around.

What's all this messiness about that frustrates parents, gets them yelling at their kids, and ends up in massive tears, distressing parents and children needlessly?

What Messiness Means

Some parents are very neat, maybe to a fault, but it feels comfortable for them. Other parents are more easy-going, a bit on the sloppy side, or too busy to pay much attention. Whatever kind of person you are, believe it or not, your messy child is not trying to be disobedient. They're not out to get you or tire your organized soul. Their messes have a wide range of possible meanings. Take a gander at a few.

Toddlers

Toddlers are discovery mongers. They love to touch and feel all kinds of textures, especially hand eaten food. Of course they are hungry and consume what they need. But once they are capable of finger foods, there's a new dimension to eating--grabbing and throwing. When a toddler takes his mushy potatoes and draws with them all over his tray, he is learning fine motor coordination, seeing how a substance can transform from thick to thin, feeling his capability to create and experiment.

Do you really want to take that away from him, just so he's neat?

Toddlers are known to throw food on the floor. This aggravates parents to no end. If they join in and pick up what's thrown, they've become part of a game. Children of this age are learning by dropping their food about what goes away and comes back, like people.

When you leave the room, have you vanished? Or, will you return? The toddler isn't sure, so he's trying to figure this out by playing his food game to increase his sense of security. The throwing the food game is symbolic.

Do you have to play the game endlessly so he learns what goes away, comes back? No, of course not. Eventually, you clean up the mess and remove him from the high chair. But you and he are missing out if he gets yelled at for this experiment because he is learning something vital to his existence--presence and absence. Lost and found.

Pretty amazing stuff when you think about the early discovery of how to cope with loss.

Tweens

Entering puberty and socializing are daunting for most kids. The mess on the floor of their clothes in the morning is more meaningful than one might imagine. It's a depiction of their self-esteem. Appearance is a frequent preoccupation of this age group because they want to feel like they belong to whatever group they identify with for a period of time. Choosing clothes is a creative activity akin to being an artist creating an image with various media.

Given that perspective, how can you yell at a kid for making a mess and not cleaning it up? That's hardly the point. So, straighten it up if it bothers you after they leave or just leave things for them to sort out later. But when they are in this vulnerable but creative exercise, it's surely not the time to impose our will or suggest a ghastly punishment for being messy.

If anything it's a time to leave them alone or compliment their design choices on their way out the door.

A parent who understands the importance of one's self-image is a winning mother or father who understands their tween's needs and development.

Teens

All of us with teenagers have seen the havoc of their rooms. Usually it's stuff all over the floor. I'm not a super neat-nick but I did have the notion that organization helps teens learn, so I remember offering to straighten things up for my teen. I didn't even ask my son to do it himself.

My son was candid and quite clear. He said he knew where his things were and if I messed that up by putting things in my idea of order, he wouldn't know where everything was. I immediately backed off knowing he was an excellent student and a good guy and that was the end of that. So conversation, not punishment, about a mess is really key to knowing what to do and what not to do.

Here's a different scenario. You notice your daughter is spending endless time behind her closed door. She's become very messy in her room, things strewn all over the place -- under the bed, hanging on a chair, open drawers with t-shirts hanging out. For her, this is unusual, unlike the boy above.

For your particular daughter, a wreck of a room is a signal to you that something is wrong. This is a red flag. Cautiously, you knock on her door after weeks have passed and ask if she wants to talk. She's a bit curt but you remain nonjudgmental and it leads to some open dialogue. You discover your daughter is getting depressed and withdrawn. Her uncharacteristic messiness led you to sensitively wonder about its meaning. Thank goodness you didn't make it into a battle or you never could have helped her trust you to share her struggles.

Her messiness was a symbol of her mind in disarray. She needed to straighten up her inner life, not her room.

Messes Have Meanings

So messiness isn't a character trait. It has meanings for us to uncover. This is an unexpected way to learn about child development as well as a way to understand and then relate even better to our children.

It's an opportunity to strengthen the parent-child bond.

When you mind the mess, you mind the mind!

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst who specializes in infant-parent, child, adolescent and adult psychotherapy. Her upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Mind, will be released Oct. 13, 2015. Tweet Laurie @lauriehollmanph.