Dealing with Messy Teenagers
PARENT | Jane Parent
Ah, summer. Freedom from alarms, making school lunches, homework. Instead, I drift lazily through the halcyon days of summer with my three precious reasons for living.
That euphoria usually lasts about three days. My teens, as it turns out, eat like Hobbits and are complete slobs who celebrate the end of the routine and constraints of school by jettisoning even minimal standards of cleanliness. By Day 4, I’ve noticed that there are more dirty dishes on the kitchen counter—even though I just cleaned up the last set 15 minutes ago. Every morning, the family room looks like it got hit by a tornado: ice cream dishes, dirty socks, empty Gatorade bottles next to pooling red stains, and popsicle sticks dropped casually onto the nest of blankets left on the sofa. Everything smells like dirty feet. My messy teenagers have settled in for the summer.
To prevent me from going all Joan Crawford on them, my messy teenagers and I have reached a compromise. You can live in filth in your own rooms, but your bedroom doors stay shut (so I can’t see in), and the rooms we all use stay reasonably tidy. Put your dishes in the dishwasher. Wash the egg pan after you use it. Basically: clean up your own mess. I make a conscious effort to relax a little and be good-humored about a little disorder; they try to remember to clean up without being asked. After all, school will start up again all too soon. And when it’s a little too clean and a little too quiet around here, I will miss those slovenly darlings.
TEEN | Charlie Parent
Things (I mean my mom) can get a little crazy when my siblings come home for the summer. The normal routine breaks down, and things start to become a bit of a mess. Suddenly, there are packed bags and storage bins in the middle of the living room. The upstairs hallway is impassable because of all my brother’s laundry baskets and trash bags full of towels and clothes. I can’t find my sneakers under the growing mountain of shoes by the back door. There’s nowhere to sit in the family room without moving a lot of stuff. It’s great to see everyone home, but it does take a few days to adjust to the presence of my siblings after being the only kid in the house for the majority of the year.
My family deals with this by having a common understanding: everyone does their part to clean up the “public” areas where everyone in the family spends time, such as the family room or the kitchen. We do our best to put away our dishes, throw away dirty napkins, and generally keep things clean. No one wants to have to deal with another person’s banana peel, dirty sock, or leftover lunch. You take care of your own mess before someone has to tell you to. Having said that, yes, we forget and are occasionally, well, lazy.
However, all bets are off when it comes to your personal space. In your room, you are the king or queen of your very own domain, and its state of cleanliness or chaos is left completely up to you. A closed door is a signal that it’s just better for everyone to avoid entry.
EXPERT | Dr. John Duffy
In my field, we often think poor grades or a bad attitude can derail a family. But oftentimes, the disarray in the home that comes with the summer months can be the cause of family chaos and stress. Though our stated goal may be to spend time with the family in the cocoon of the home, the reality often feels like too much togetherness, too many screen-illuminated faces, and way, way too much stuff, everywhere.
I think the difference between public and private areas of the home is particularly useful here. For private areas like bedrooms and, in some homes, basements or dens, a parent closing a door and ignoring the mess is the most viable solution—and the least likely to drive unnecessary conflict.
I also find that some of the messiest kids reach a tipping point after which they cannot handle their own dishes sitting in their room for even one more day. The caveat here is the degree of gross-ness. Mom and Dad are allowed to draw the line here.
The care and cleaning of the home needs to be a family affair. It cannot and should not fall on one parent or one child. Delineating the roles and chores early in the game is recommended.
At the end of the day, a little mess is inevitable. If we choose every battle, that will become the story of the summer—not a particularly memorable story to tell. I’d rather have messy teenagers and a sink full of dirty dishes for a while, if it means a connected family engaged with one another.
Dr. John Duffy is a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, best-selling author of The Available Parent and contributing parenting expert on Steve Harvey.