Dear Your Teen:
We have a young teenage son who is a really sweet kid. We hear from his teachers that he does really nice things for other people on his own (helping a girl who was knocked over in the hallway, assisting a substitute teacher). He’s a hard worker, especially in those school subjects or activities he loves. But when it comes to responsibilities at home, my teenage son doesn’t clean his room.
We have tried positive reinforcement, rewards, expectations, charts, punishments, taking away things he loves, asking nicely, yelling, even offering to help – but his room is still a pit. He continues to use the area next to his bed as a “garbage bin” for food wrappers, which we have repeatedly told him not to bring up to his room at all.
We have tried talking to him about it and his response is, “I’m just lazy and don’t like to do it.” Just letting him live in the mess is not working either – he doesn’t seem to care. He does take care of his younger sibling for a few hours each day, but even getting his dish to the sink is a chore for him. I know it’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but we’re tired of dealing with the filth and the seemingly lazy ways of my teenage son. Help!
EXPERT | Amy Speidel
When children are very young, they assert themselves by refusing to eat the food we serve, to stay in bed, or to bend at the appropriate angle so that we can fasten them into a car seat. Remember those days? They’re back. The need to exercise autonomy happens several times in the developmental process, and the teen years tend to be one of those times. Teens are establishing their own set of values as a way to differentiate themselves from the adult world. “That’s important to you? Well, it isn’t so important to me.”
I find it interesting that your teenage son is willing to label himself lazy, which is probably the opposite of your family value, while outside of the house he’s a hard worker. It might look like your teen takes his real self—the self you’ve been helping him build—into the world, and marches this worthless self home at the end of the day. His best qualities seem squandered on total strangers. But that’s what we all do. Our best selves are shared with an unforgiving world and our undisciplined selves are saved for those who love us no matter what. That would be you. Lucky, lucky you.
Take heart. You have taught your teenage son well. He knows how to live a responsible life. He just doesn’t want to live it 24/7. But you can try to shift things. Here are a few ideas that may help your teen choose a more responsible path at home.
Don’t harp on messy teenage rooms
It’s his. However, if you clean his room–picking up his dirty clothes and washing them–that must stop now. He needs to feel the full weight of his choice to live in squalor, which means no one tries to improve his living conditions, not even with clean clothes. He can’t create a public health hazard though, so if he takes food into his room, someone (preferably with full hazmat gear) will need to retrieve it – and that will cost him. Food removal does not come cheaply. If he has no money, he will have to make up the cost over the weekend by doing one of your jobs, and no screens or friends until the job is done. This eliminates the daily nagging and begging on your part. It’s a done deal. You remove anything that is toxic waste. Leave the rest. Close the door.
Dishes to the sink
How do the dishes eventually make it to the sink? If you do it after giving up on the idea that it will ever get done, your teen knows that. He just has to hold out long enough for you to break down. Leave it where it lies and when he wants anything, your line is, “As soon as your dish makes it to the sink, I’ll be happy to help you with that.” The world as he knows it stops until he’s able to take care of his responsibilities. Keep it simple. Focus on one or two expectations at a time. You’re helping to build habits by creating consistent expectations and a reason to follow through.
Honor what your teen actually does
It’s probably more than you realize. In a low-key way, mention that it is helpful when he puts his books away, helps you with groceries, etc. Let him know you appreciate it, and in a lighthearted way, let him know he’s free to help as much as he’d like. Humor and connection can create roads that begging and nagging can only envy.