Why We Should Let Our Teens Keep A Messy Bedroom

by Christine Organ
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If you have teens or pre-teens, you know the struggle is real when it comes to their bedrooms. My two sons share a room, and let’s just say it is a disaster zone that smells like a combination of stale gym clothes, Axe body spray, and wet bath towels. I nag and I nag and I nag, but nothing seems to change. The towels lay on the floor for days. Same thing with the dirty clothes. Bowls of half-eaten cereal and school yearbooks from third grade teeter on the edge of their desk and dresser, which are filled with so many baseball cards that I swear they are breeding.

Clutter is my kryptonite, and few things cause my blood pressure to spike like my sons’ bedroom. In fact, the state of their room is the cause of 86.4% of our spats (er, screaming matches). But a Facebook post that recently caught my eye has caused me to rethink the way I think about my teens’ bedroom.

Marilyn Oduenyi, a cognitive behavioral therapist and parenting coach known as The Peaceful Black Mama on social media, says that we should be thinking of our kids’ bedrooms as a haven for them, one that should be free of nagging and guilt trips to keep it tidy. She reminds us that, as adults, our homes are our sanctuary and we have control over how the cleanliness of that space. Our kids should have the same autonomy.

“Our homes are our havens where we can decompress and be ourselves free from the gaze of society and it’s often suffocating rules and demands,” writes Oduenyi. “If we decide to wash the dishes in the morning and get some much needed sleep, tonight, no one can question us. Or, on the flip side, if you de-stress by scrubbing the walls, organizing the shelves and buffing the floors into the wee hours of the night, it’s nobody’s business.”

She makes a great point.

“For those of us who live with others — especially spouses and families –- we often feel a strong need for our own special space within our homes where the rules, compromises and demands of the shared spaces don’t have to apply. Where we are fully in control,” Oduenyi says.

Our teens are no exception – they need a safe place they have control over.

Oduenyi reminds us that the chaos in teens’ rooms is like the chaos going on in their developing brains. It is a temporary phrase – one that they’ll move through more quickly if we give them the time, space and independence to figure it out on their own. Like Oduenyi reassures us that our teens will eventually get it.

In the meantime, she offers tips for guiding our teens — without losing our minds in the process.

One of my biggest goals as a parent is to raise my kids to be self-sufficient contributors to the household. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let my kids – two boys – grow up into man-children who have roommates or spouses who clean up after them because they “don’t see” the messes they make.

But like all things, there need to be exceptions. We need to give some grace.

Oduenyi recommends helping our kids improve their cleaning habits in the rest of the home without directly micromanaging their bedrooms. She also reinforced that we, as parents, model the behavior we want to see.

“Teens still need a lot of hands on involvement and active modeling to learn and improve on skills,” she told Scary Mommy. “The best way to teach them responsibility for cleaning up after themselves and ‘see’ the mess is to, first, be an example of someone who consistently cleans up after themselves and by actively involving them in the process of ‘seeing’ the mess.”

Another great suggestion: the end-of-day reset.

“As you are all getting ready for bed or leaving the room or house for an extended period, encourage everyone to look around the house or whatever space you’re most concerned about and pick up and put back any stray items that they see and be a part of the cleaning.”

She also reminds parents to treat teens as partners in the process, rather than just telling them what to do. Oduenyi shared her Set-and-Reset Approach:

– Help teens understand how mess and disorganization impacts everyone in the household and what role they can play in keeping things clean and organized.

– Be certain that everything has a designated place to go so that your teen isn’t constantly getting confused and frustrated about what to do with items as they clean.

– Make sure they know how to clean things properly and where to put the things that they pick up.

– Work with them and create an agreement in choosing or assigning household responsibilities that lighten the load for everyone.

– Create a sense of accountability for completing the agreed upon tasks.

I tried a few of these tips this morning to get my kids to clean out their dresser drawers and it really did help. There was no yelling (by me or them) so I’m calling it a win.

When it comes to the clutter-induced anxiety many of us have when we take a look at our kids’ rooms, Oduenyi gives us permission to literally close the door on the problem. She also says that excess clutter might also mean “it’s time to start buying less and doing more to be present and supportive in our teens’ worlds.”

I’m not sure exactly where things will shake out on this for our family and in our home. Because while I firmly believe everything that Oduenyi says about teens needing their own safe place, free from nagging and chastisement, clutter also triggers my anxiety something fierce. Nagging habits are hard to break — but I truly do want my kids to have a haven of their own in our home.

Maybe it’ll shutting the door to my kids’ room a little more so I don’t need to see the mess. Maybe it means just one or two rules – like no food or dishes left in their room – but an otherwise hands-off approach. Maybe it means firm limits when it comes to their cleanliness with the rest of the house, but free rein in their room. Maybe it means taking a deep breath and shutting my mouth the next time I want to remind them to “do something about that disaster of a room.”

I really do want to come to some kind of middle ground. I don’t want to spend the few years I have left with my kids living in my house nagging them about the state of their rooms. Who knows? Maybe by giving them a physical haven, I’ll be giving myself a mental haven as well.

As Oduenyi says, “When parents reign in peace, ultimately, peace will reign.”