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Why teenagers can’t keep their rooms tidy

It’s a common bone of contention that teenagers can’t keep their rooms tidy, but this can be due to a subconscious need rather than laziness

Few fictional characters have summed up adolescence better than Harry Enfield’s iconic Kevin the Teenager. First introduced to us as a charming, happy child going up to bed the night before his thirteenth birthday, he emerged the next day (probably in the afternoon) as a scowling, growling horror.

While all teenagers rebel in different ways, there’s one thing that always causes friction with parents – the state of their bedrooms. Dirty clothes and coffee mugs piled on the floor, curtains and blinds drawn, bins overflowing… Why do teenagers seem to enjoy living in semi-darkness and borderline squalor that would challenge (though not defeat) even our highly-trained cleaners?

Breaking free or slowly sinking

There are two common reasons why teenagers can’t keep their rooms tidy. Despite being very different, neither will be resolved by shouting at them or criticising them…

1. A bid for independence.

Adolescence is a time of unparalleled physical and mental change. Children feel compelled to assert their independence, yet that’s difficult when they’re too young to work, drive or move out. Colonising a bedroom helps them to feel in control of something amid emotional turmoil, and may simply be a natural developmental stage. It won’t last forever, even if it sometimes feels like it.

2. A sign of depression.

Hiding in a safe, self-created space can seem very tempting to a teenager amid wildly fluctuating hormones, newfound peer pressure and intensive academic studies. Listlessness and depression can lead to the blinds staying shut, dirty clothes piling up beside the overflowing laundry basket, and crumbs all over the carpet.

How should parents deal with this?

Firstly, think back to your own teenage years. It’s a stage when you’re expected to behave maturely without being allowed to make grown-up decisions, and when other people’s opinions suddenly matter more than ever before. It’s also physically exhausting – teenagers tend to require around ten hours of sleep every night, as their brains and bodies evolve at a rate not seen since they were babies. If your child doesn’t get up until midday, it’s probably not due to laziness (unless they were up til 3am playing Call of Duty, or watching cat videos on TikTok).

Keeping your own growing pains in mind, tackle any discussions with calmness and empathy. Don’t barge into a child’s bedroom lighting scented candles and complaining about sweaty socks – they’ll try even harder to create more mess later. Approach them when they’re in a moderately good mood, and politely offer to help tidy up. Teenagers often feel overwhelmed by even small tasks, so an offer of assistance may be gratefully received. If they say no, bite your tongue and don’t argue. Their bedroom is the only part of the house they’re in control of, and even well-intentioned tidying could derail their sense of safety. Explain that dirty pots and clothes can be a health hazard, but don’t nag them about making the bed or putting things back on shelves. If the room smells unpleasant, fling the windows open while they’re out, closing them before their return.

Clean sweep

When Queen of Gleam visit, advise us about what we’re allowed to do in a teenager’s bedroom. Disposing of old pizza boxes might be okay, but repositioning items on a dressing table could be triggering. Vacuuming floors and dusting windowsills shouldn’t upset anyone, but making a bed often interferes with their sense of sanctuary. Our cleaners will never overstep the boundaries we’re set, though we might be limited in what we can achieve. And even if we’re told to obey a No Entry sign on a bedroom door and stay out entirely, at least we can make the rest of your home immaculate…

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