How to Deal With Your Preteen’s Messy Bedroom

Declare a truce in the untidy-room war

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Messy bedrooms—if playing Family Feud, it would probably be one of the top five answers to “What drives parents nuts?” Sheila Norman says the state of her 12-year-old daughter’s room—bed unmade, with clothes and schoolwork scattered all over the floor—used to irritate her, “especially after we renovated and spent big dollars decorating her room.” But her daughter was so adamant about keeping it the way it was, the Toronto mom decided it wasn’t worth the fight.

Natalie Hjelsvold’s two daughters, 11 and 9, have messy rooms too, but she is willing to let it slide. Part of this, the Calgary mom says, is because she remembers the battles she had with her own parents about her messy room, but mostly, “it is that I would rather be doing something fun with my kids (instead of) griping about books on the floor.”

The One-Step Solution

“At this age, kids are establishing themselves as pre-adolescents and they are trying to figure out what is theirs and what is their space,” says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based child and family therapist, and author of You’re Ruining My Life (But Not Really). “They need to be individuals somewhere, and I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we trying to teach our kids something by having a clean room, or is this for us?’” The solution, she says, is easier than we think.

“What I usually tell parents is, honestly, messy rooms are not a battle worth fighting. There are doors for a reason. Just close the door,” says Kolari, who uses this tactic with her own teen. That said, she does maintain that there should be some guidelines, such as no wet towels or laundry on the floor and no dirty dishes in the room. “Other than that, leave them be.”

And while their room might be their domain, not picking up after themselves in other rooms is another story; “then you can link that to allowance and responsibility because those are rooms that everyone has to enjoy,” she says.

Managing the Chaos

The natural consequences of not finding her favourite shirt might be enough to encourage your child to straighten up on her own. But if she wants her room to be tidier, don’t just say, “Fine, clean it.” “We assume they have this plan of action in their head (but) that’s high-ordered thinking. Kids that age don’t necessarily even know where to begin to tackle something like that,” says Kolari, who suggests breaking it down into tasks. That’s what Hjelsvold does with her girls when their rooms reach her breaking point—when she can no longer get in to vacuum. “They can take a break in between if they want. Sometimes we clean for an hour, stop and watch a movie, then go back to the task.”

Give Them the Tools

“Although houses and children’s bedrooms are more spacious today than they have been in the past, there is often inadequate storage,” says Jacki Hollywood Brown, president of Professional Organizers in Canada. She says parents can help their kids by understanding their organizing style and providing them with simple storage solutions such as transparent bins on shelves, hooks inside closets and a laundry basket, a garbage can and a recycling bin. But be mindful where you put them. “Where the kids are taking off the clothes and leaving them on the floor, that’s where you place the laundry bin,” she explains.

A Last Resort

If a messy room behind a closed door eats at you, Kolari suggests imposing a deadline, such as a week. If nothing changes, Kolari has a drastic measure, one she has yet to have to recommend: Place all of the stuff on the floor into a box and put it in the basement or the storage locker. When your child needs their stuff, they’ll have to go get it. “There’s an inconvenience there and they’ll understand how important it is to put things away,” says Kolari.

If you do go this route, Kolari warns against letting any negative feelings spill into your relationship with your preteen, “because it will take a hit when you reinforce the room issue.”

Keeping It Clean

Fortunately, children do grow out of this messy stage, but they may be out of your house when it finally happens, says Kolari. “It’s often not until university that they figure out how to keep a room tidy, because they have to live with other people.”

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