Clothes left in the bathroom, lids left off things, cups of tea made back at the beginning of the year, plates that seem to be growing some sort of fungi and glasses that you thought had been broken months ago. Why don't our teenage children care about being tidy?
The unbelievable untidiness of teens is a real bug bear for many parents, myself included. For many parents, it just doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t you want to clear up after yourself and have a well organised, tidy bedroom. Somewhere, by some miracle, there might actually be a teenager who doesn't have a "messy room." Most parents would doubt that. A teen's messy room continues to be the source for ongoing parent-teen conflict in the vast majority of families.
While I can't make that messy room disappear, I would like to try and help you understand why it happens and perhaps reduce your stress and frustration level just a little.
A first step is to understanding why the state of your child's room bothers you as a parent. After all, your child lives in the mess, not you. Apart from just wanting order (which can be really important thing for many of us), what frustrates us is what the mess says about us, our authority over our child and our effectiveness as a parent. Are we failing as a parent, if our children can’t see the mess and won’t hear our pleas to clean it up?
But the typical objection from a teen when we asked them to clean up their room is hard to argue against – “It’s my room, what’s your problem?”
For your teen, their privacy and autonomy, not a messy room, are part of the issue. That room is his or her domain, and keeping it in whatever state they want is one way of them being independent and autonomous.
Becoming more independent is a normal and healthy part of the developmental process during adolescence. Teenagers are trying to separate from you. They are pursuing their independence in their journey towards adulthood, but doing it from a safe place, in the home you have created for them. They are pushing their independence and a messy room is an easy, safe way to declare that independence. It is the first independent space that they have autonomous control over and we should therefore try and respect how they want to live in it, as we would when they move into their own home.
Before we get into how we, as parents can live with and manage their safety in their independent palaces, let me first share two other important reasons why they don’t actually see the mess they make. Both are due to the fact that their brains, which are still being wired up during the teenage years, don’t notice and ignore the untidiness.
Tidiness needs a sophisticated level of planning and attention, and the way the teenage brain is wired up means that their planning skills and attentional abilities are not yet fully developed. Different parts of their brain connect to each other through synapses, which are insulated, just like electric wires. That insulation is a fatty substance called myelin, which is created over time. This rewiring of the teenage brain process takes 14 years between 10 and 24 years old, and it starts at the back of the brain and slowly moves forward.
The last bits of the teenage brain to get wired up are the frontal and prefrontal cortex, where insight, empathy, risk taking and attention and planning are controlled. This means that organisation and tidiness are a not high priority for most teenagers. They have other things to worry about – they are messy because they are unable to effectively plan ahead and give themselves enough time to tidy up before they run off to do something else. Their brain doesn’t yet have the cognitive foresight to plan for tidying their bedroom so they simply ignore the mess.
The other reason they don’t notice the mess is their adolescent brains are changing the way their attend to and notice things in their immediate environment. Across their teenage years, they gradually shift from noticing things that grab their attention in their environment (what we call "bottom-up attention") to having much more control and consciously directing their attention to things in their environment, like the mess in their bedroom (what we call "top-down attention"). So teenagers literally don’t notice the mess because their top down attention brain system is till being wired up.
A messy room is an easy, safe way for a teenager to declare their independence. And the protracted process of rewiring their brain across the adolescence years means that they won’t notice the mess for most of the time they're with you.
Arguing won't change that, but setting a few sensible family rules can make things easier. The first one to try is to walk away from the mess, like a crime scene. Close the door and ignore it. Pick up the old food wrappers and dirty dishes because they can attract bugs if left for long enough and that's not good for they health. But ignore the rest of the mess.
If you like a tidy, ordered house, like me, then this is really hard to implement. But, think about the reason why you’re asking them to tidy their room. Is it for your or their wellbeing? Try it. It's actually quite liberating!
Teens can accept sensible, fair rules for family use areas. While a clean bedroom might seem unreasonable, your teen can understand the need to clean up after themselves in the kitchen or not to leave their shoes or bag in the middle of the hallway.
And don’t clean up for your teen. It doesn’t actually help. You'll just create an angry teen who has also learned that when it gets messy enough, you'll do the job for them.
A better strategy is an offer to help. Many teens literally don’t know where to start once the mess gets too big. You could suggest ways to break that big task into smaller ones and offer storage and sorting tips.
There certainly are things worth pushing hard for with your teen. A messy room is not one of them. Someday that room will get cleaned. New friends, missing treasures or the lack of clean clothes might be the motivation. Or not. Then that clean room will just have to wait until he or she moves out.
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