How to Help Your Messy Teen Get Organized

Messyroom 315

So, your teen is a slob.

Join the club. My oldest is a quintessential pack rat, although, his piles are not neatly distributed in a small hole. He claims he knows where everything is in that nightmare he calls a room. He says that if I move something, he won’t be able to find it. Sometimes I just cringe and shut the door. Then, when it’s time to vacuum, I go zany and start screaming that I’m going to throw out everything and anything that’s on the floor!

Can’t Clean Up or Won’t?
When it looks as if a tornado has struck your teen’s room, and you are exasperated beyond measure, sometimes it’s easier just to close the door. However, this might not be the best solution, because it doesn’t help your teen to learn how to organize his or her clutter. Charging in to clean it yourself, or simply ignoring the mess, won’t make the problem go away.

Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and author of “TEEN 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence,” says, “Teens are young adults, not children. Picture your teen as a young boarder in your home. How would you treat him or her if he or she were a slob? You wouldn’t take away the iPod or car keys; you would negotiate and try to stay calm. You might draw a line indicating where his or her messy territory stops.”

Determine the root of the problem. Sometimes it’s just an inability to purge memorabilia or a simple case of laziness. Or, it may be a personality trait or an actual disability inhibiting his ability to organize.

How bad is it If there is a Department of Health issue with used string cheese wrappers growing mold in his book bag or ants nesting in old candy wrappers under the bed, an overhaul is necessary. Is the state of his room and belongings affecting his life in a negative way? If your teen’s goals, commitments or grades are suffering due to his mess, then it’s time to insist on change.

Chaos and Consequences
Chances are your teen may need help, but it’s important for her to take ownership of the overhaul. Help her to realize how the mess is making things more difficult for her. Many teens don’t know where to begin, and their tendency to be impulsive doesn’t help either. Set realistic expectations, and don’t expect that she won’t have setbacks or need reminders. Initial clean up should be done in stages. She can start with the floor, and then move to the closet on another day. If the task is in manageable pieces, it will be less daunting.

“Be a great role model. Show the teen how to do it,” suggests Epstein. “Sometimes it’s helpful to take her shopping for organizational aids, such as storage cubes or shelves. Always watch for any signs, even small signs, of neatness, and praise and reward like crazy.”

Kim Maselli says she sometimes resorts to bribery with her organizationally challenged teenagers. “Inevitably, my kids will want to go to the mall, need a ride somewhere, or want a friend to come over. I simply say, ‘As soon as your room is cleaned up.’ Works every time!”

While having a messy teen is frustrating, try to encourage responsibility as best you can. If your teen loses a pair of sneakers, have him purchase a new pair with his own money. Set up a reward system for report cards free of comments about missing assignments.

Finally, allow natural consequences to happen, and avoid rushing to his rescue when his lack of organization gets him into trouble. If he has to fix his own mistakes, he will be less apt to repeat them.

Getting Organized
• Insist on weekly clean ups, so things don’t get out of hand.

• Suggest daily list-making.

• Encourage clearing out book bags and reorganizing notebooks each marking period.

• Grant a new freedom (i.e., extension of a curfew) if your teen demonstrates responsibility and starts to get organized.

Myrna Beth Haskell writes a monthly advice column for parents of teens, as well as articles about children’s health and development. Her work appears in national and regional publications throughout the United States and Canada.