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How to Unclog a Toilet: Life Skills for Teenagers

I worked as an overnight summer camp supervisor for several years. I spent hours listening to teenaged counselors plead their cases to stay out later and to have more independence. They were, after all, supervising children, so they should be treated as adults. Meanwhile, not a day passed when one of them wasn’t asking the maintenance staff to come to their cabin to plunge a clogged toilet. Hindsight is perfect, but if I were to do it again, I’d tell them that if they could manage their own toilet problems for a week, then I’d advocate for changing their curfew.

Part of launching our kids into adulthood includes preparing them to handle messy situations, and few things are messier than a clogged toilet. While learning how to plunge a toilet may not seem glamorous, the sooner our teens get to the bottom of it, the better.

How to Deal with a Clogged Toilet

Step One: Prevention

Remind your kids about the time when they didn’t know any better and flushed their action figures down the toilet. (Maybe you’re lucky and that didn’t happen at your house.) Explain that some items should never be flushed, including paper towels, so-called flushable wipes, and dental floss. Ditto for massive wads of toilet paper. A toilet can only take so much, and knowing how to prevent a clogged toilet goes a long way. Some older plumbing and septic systems cannot tolerate tampons, either—an awkward but important conversation to have with friends or overnight guests who might not know this about your home. 

Step Two: Preparation

Just like we have fire extinguishers in our kitchens, we should have plungers at the ready for when we need to unclog a toilet. And while it doesn’t need to be prominently displayed, it does need to be convenient. And even more importantly, teens need to know where it is. Furthermore, if your teen or young adult is living on their own, a plunger makes a great housewarming gift, as it’s unlikely to be something they think of getting themselves.

Step Three: Damage Control 

Despite efforts to keep the plumbing flowing, sometimes “sh** happens,” as they say, and that’s when teens need to know how to unclog a toilet. When a toilet is clogged, teens should not keep trying to flush unless they are interested in doing a mad science experiment on overflowing sewage. And if they do see the toilet’s contents rising ominously towards overflowing, they need to know how to shut off the toilet’s water supply ASAP. (Look below the tank, and turn the handle on the water line clockwise until tight.)

Step Four: The Art of the Plunge

Here are directions for how to unclog a toilet. Take the plunger, place it over the drain, and make your first push a gentle one; if you push too hard, you run the risk of splattering water and other substances all over the place. The next few plunges can be more vigorous, so that you can loosen whatever is clogging the drain. Repeat as needed. This may take some time, so be patient.

A successful plunge will clear the drain, allowing for all substances to pass through it. A test flush is in order to make sure that the toilet bowl fills properly. Also, at this time, it might be necessary to indulge in some additional cleaning around the toilet—hopefully not with the nice bath towels.

When all else fails, it’s time to call in an expert! That could be a parent, or if you’re not home, the plumber. By now, your teen has likely texted you in a panic so you can share that number with them; but if you have problem pipes, you might want to consider sharing that number with your teens proactively. Happy plunging! 

Jody has spent her life around teens, as a teacher and as a parent of three.

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