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The Messy Room and Tips to Cope from Lisa Damour Ph.D.: Video Series

What to do when your adolescent or teenager is not invited to the party? In this series of four videos, Dr. Lisa Damour explains ways parents help their teenagers handle the difficult, yet not uncommon, experience of being left out.

Video #1: Should I Call the Other Parent?

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Let’s face it. Our teenagers’ untidy rooms can drive us nuts. But how to handle it?

Dealing With A Messy Bedroom

In this series of four videos, Dr. Lisa Damour explains ways parents can approach this common dilemma.

Video #1: I Can’t Find My Homework


[adrotate banner=”98″]So, perhaps your child is disorganized, and perhaps she is often looking for the lost paper or the lost notebook or things like that and you know full well that if her room were cleaner, you know this wouldn’t be a problem. So when she comes flying down the stairs all distressed because she cant find her lost fill in the blank you should feel free to say to her, “You know if your room were tidier you wouldn’t have this problem.” She’s not going to like it. It doesn’t mean she is going to fix it. But you should feel free to point out the conflict and the bad position she’s put herself in and not feel you need to be invited into a fresh fight.

Whether you make that comment in the heat of the moment or later on in the day, you know your child. You know what works best. The overriding advice here is don’t get caught up in the conflict that she has created for herself. Help her to recognize that she has put herself in this position.

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Video #2: Teen Messy Room vs. House Rules


Some parents may respond to a messy room by thinking, “This is a room in my house, and as long as you are living in my house and I am paying for you to live in this house, you need to keep it in a way that I feel good about.” And I understand where they’re coming from on that one. But could you frame it in a different way? Can you think about the fact that this is the first space that your teen will occupy that will really feel like it’s theirs. And they have a right to have some time and space to figure out how to manage what they own, and what belongs to them. And yeah you may pay for it and you may own it. But let them practice owning and having something.

So they may keep their room messy for when they live in your home, move into an apartment or a dorm room that they keep messy and may even keep a messy house as an adult. They may also find that having their room a mess starts to bother them or means it’s hard to find their things. And they may in their own way and under their own terms come to keep their space more organized and more tidy. But for the time they live in the house with you, you might consider seeing their room as a space how they want to live their lives, how they want to manage their own possessions and the spaces that surround them.

Video #3: The Messy Room: It’s Driving Me Crazy


Another way to think about your teenagers messy room is to remember that its teenagers jobs to rub adults the wrong way. It’s part of being a teen. In fact I worry a lot about the teens who aren’t upsetting adults ever. I always think about teens behavior in terms of “What are the long term consequences of this way in which they are choosing to annoy an adult?” And when we think about the messy room, this probably won’t hurt her when she’s 30. So what’s it going to look like to have ongoing friction with your teen about their rooms? What it’s going to look like?

You’re going to stand in their doorway. You’re going to sigh. And you’re going to say, “Your room is driving me crazy. You need to clean it up. I keep asking you to clean it up.” Your teen is going to look at you, roll her eyes and tell you how busy they are. That they don’t have time. That it’s their room. And you say, “I know but you live in this house and you need to clean it up. It’s bothering me that it’s so messy.” And then you walk way.

You walk away with no guarantee that room will be clean. But you have the reassurance that you and teen had some friction around something that has no potential for lasting consequences, and the hope that having friction around the place where there’s no lasting consequence you’re reducing the chance that your teen needs to seek out friction with you for something that is dangerous.

Video #4: The Messy Room: How Messy?


A classic struggle between teenagers and their parents is how the teenager keeps his or her room. Teenagers, as a large group, tend to keep their rooms pretty messy, and some parents really can’t stand this, and nagging from most parents tends to not make the room get clean. So there are a few different ways you can handle this.

This first question I would ask is, “How messy is it?” I think there’s a big distinction between having clothes on the floor and having rotting food in the room. If there is rotting food in the room, you really need to draw a hard line. Because really, that’s disgusting for everyone involved. So if there’s rotting food in the room, I think you make it clear that if they’re not going to get the rotting food out of his or her room, you will be going in to get the rotting food out of the room.

And I think this gets to something big that often happens with teenagers. They don’t want us in their business. But occasionally they send us engraved invitations to be in their business. I would include rotting food in the room as an engraved initiation to be in their business.

If your teenager doesn’t like having you come into their room to retrieve rotting food, you can lay out the clear parameters. You can say, “Look, if you stop having rotting food in your room, I will stop going in your room.” But if we get back to something about just having clothes on the floor, again, this isn’t alright. You may have bought those clothes. They may be nice clothes. And it may actually be not only uncomfortable to have the mess in the room but something sort of disheartening about seeing nice clothes thrown on the floor.

When we think about this, we have to remember that it’s really hard to make teenagers do something. Teenagers have a lot of freedom. They’re not little kids, and you can’t take stuff away in the way that you used to be able to. But, you do still have some leverage. You might be able to say something like, “Look. You’re not taking care of the nice things that you own. So I’m not going to be buying you nice things until you are.” Your daughter or son might choose to live with the clothes they’ve got, or to get a job and buy their own clothes. That’s an option they will have. But you could at least have the comfort of feeling like you’re having to finance the ongoing mess in their room.

Lisa Damour, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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