Organizing With Teenagers

teenager. Do you have a teenager, and his/her room is driving you crazy?
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

Do you have a teenager, and his/her room is driving you crazy? Maybe the bathroom is even worse: it smells like gym socks or is covered in make-up and hair bands. The days of the perfectly made bed seem far away, and you have lowered the bar way down to “Can you please not leave food on the floor where the dog will get it?” You wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

The answer may very well be, “You didn’t!”  As with many aspects of teenage life, the spaces that teenagers inhabit are often chaotic.  On the list of priorities, cleaning up is pretty low. I know.  I have had two teenage girls, and with a professional organizer for a mother, they had repeatedly been taught organizing and executive functioning skills! In my years observing them, I came to two conclusions:

CONCLUSION #1: A teen’s unwillingness to clean up is not an act of rebellion or a sign that you have failed as a parent.

When a teenager leaves his room in a state of disorder, he most likely is not trying to upset you. Rather, his room is just the symptom of the complexity of his life. Most teens spend all of their energy trying to balance a wide variety of pressures (e.g. schoolwork, social concerns, activities…), and the state of their rooms is the least of their concerns.

A few realities are typical for today’s teenagers…

They are busy. Teens have very full schedules, often being “on call” from early in the morning until they go to bed. This would be difficult for anyone, but especially for those who may not yet have well-developed time management skills.

They keep late hours. It is common for teen body clocks to shift, making it difficult to fall asleep. As a result, a teenager will sleep until the last possible minute in the morning, leaving little time for making the bed, straightening the room, etc.

They spend more time on body maintenance. Teenagers, especially girls, tend to increase the amount of time they spend getting ready in the morning. Looking good matters a lot, while cleaning up matter less.

They have a lot of stuff. Whereas in elementary school your child only needed a toothbrush and a hairbrush, now he may have retainers, deodorant, contact lenses, razors, acne cream, etc. The sheer volume of items required for his increasingly adult body can be significant. The little corner of the bathroom counter that your daughter used to share with her sibling may now be insufficient, but she is too busy to try and figure out a better solution. In addition, the backpack, which used to have a couple of folders, now has many books, sports gear, a cell phone, ear buds, make-up, gym clothes, car keys, an ID, and more. Most teens are struggling to manage all this stuff.

Teenage behavior is similar to the way we react in a crisis situation. If a hospital were to call and tell you that your father has had a heart attack, you probably wouldn’t take the time to polish the sink before dashing off to the ER. For many teens, each day seems to be full of “calls from the hospital.”

CONCLUSION #2: Teenagers aren’t likely to suddenly become organized, so you need to find ways to “negotiate” some boundaries you can both live with.

  1. Invite your teen to a special time to discuss the issue. Go where your teen wants to go (ice cream, in front of Xbox, whatever). Say “I know we’ve been having some strife over the way you maintain your belongings. I don’t like having bad feelings about this. I wanted to just sit down and talk to you about it because you are a great kid and I know we can find some way to figure this out.” By opening up with some positive words, you put your teen at ease.
  2. Ask, “How do you feel about the way you keep your things? Do you feel that your system is working for you? Would you like any help in changing the way your space is organized?” This is an important question because some teens would actually like having an organized space, but they just don’t know how to make it happen. If you are lucky enough to have this as the root of the problem, set aside time to work together, tackling one area at a time. Empty the space, de-clutter, group like items, and get any bins, shelving, racks or hooks you need to make the space work better. Be sure to make sure everything has a designated place in which it belongs.
  3. If your teen is content with his/her mess, the next step is to negotiate how to coexist. Acknowledge that keeping order is not high on their priority list, and then explain why it matters to you. You can say something like, “The way our home and its contents are cared for is as important to me as your problems are to you.” Express a desire to find a mutually acceptable solution. The key areas you to need to cover are:

=>The bedroom:

I generally believe it is a good idea to let kids keep their rooms as they want on a daily basis, interspersed with a periodically required clean up. For example, you can agree that the teen will maintain a clear a path on the floor, and clean the other surfaces (dresser, desk, etc.) every other week by a certain time. In between, just close the door. And whatever you do, DON’T go in and rescue her if she can’t find something, or wants to wear a shirt that is dirty.  If your teen shares a room, set some actual, physical boundaries for what is “hers.” Consequences for breaking the deal should be agreed upon in advance, and should be customized for the teen. If your teen loves gaming, reduce gaming time for an unclean room. If you teen wants car access, then a violation means no keys for the weekend. Find something that matters!!

=> The bathroom:

This is a tricky one, because bathrooms are small spaces. Begin by setting some “bare minimums”, such as the towel must be hung up (even if it is sloppily done), and personal care supplies returned to a certain space (corner of the counter, bucket, etc.) You may need to help the teen find space for her items so she can do this (e.g. install a hook for the hair dryer, buy an organizer for the make-up, etc). Once again, a consequence for breaking the rule should be established and agreed upon in advance. Try and be reasonable, keeping the daily expectations low.

=> The “public square”: 

This includes the places the whole family hangs out (e.g. kitchen, family room, mudroom). Here is where you can teach your teen to respect others. Go through each room and be specific about what you want. In addition, consider setting up a basket for each family member. If you find stuff lying around, just stick it in the individual’s basket. When the basket is full, he has to clean it out before taking part in an optional activity.

Do all you can to praise your teen whenever he makes an effort, especially in front of the family. If he fails, just carry through with the consequence without discussion. Don’t engage in debate because teens are very persuasive and persistent. If, after a little while, you are still having a problem, start the process all over again.

*     *     *     *     *

Some days it may seem you teenager will never get it together, but know that many of the messiest teens turn it around when they go off to live in a tiny dorm or apartment.

What tips do you have for helping teens organize?

27 thoughts on “Organizing With Teenagers”

  1. Fabulous to read- such a hot issue for me! I really relate to the “call to the hospital”. Thanks for the great advice.

  2. Like Susan, “call to the hospital” stood out for me.I love that analogy, which helped imagine our teen’s perspective. And that’s so key…understanding what their priorities are is essential to household harmony. But just as it’s important for parents to understand our kids’ priorities and challenges, the opposite is also true. And that’s why the idea of negotiating common areas are so important. Our daughters are no longer teenagers, they are grown with their own apartments. When growing up they shared a room (with two completely different organizing and “thing” management styles.) We worked on boundaries and respect rules both in their room and the rest of our home. Were there conflicts? Sometimes. But mostly, we worked together and respected each others’ needs.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…What Are Today’s Interesting Finds? – v12My Profile

    1. There is tremendous value in adjusting our behavior to honor those we love. I think the effort we make to understand where others are coming from is always valuable, as is giving every member of a household some space that is “her own”… a bit of space over which we can exercise a measure of control. Much of live involves compromise, and this is one way to nurture this concept with children, through the teen years. Is it harder when people in a shared space have different priorities? Most definitely! Can we seek to respect each other, I believe we can and should.

    1. I think that is such an interesting phenomenon, and one that I observed personally and have heard from others. When faced with living in a small space, where the bed may also be the sofa, teens often shift their priorities a bit. In addition to needing to make adjustments, many learn to live with “less” in a dorm room, and find a measure of pride in how they keep their space. This doesn’t always happen, but I think it may be a comfort to parents who worry that they have somehow failed their child forever!

    1. Luckily, you still have years to go, Janine. It may seem far off, but it seems it jumps up and surprises us, and then we feel a bit “out of the driver’s seat” as parents. Just having these ideas in mind may come in handy when the time comes:)

  3. My teenage is actually the tidier of our 2 kids, it is the 23 year old that is the mess monster. Although after a few episodes of our kitten peeing on her piles of clothes, she does improve for a while. My mothers rule for our bedrooms were anything that is on the floor when i clean the house, will either be sucked up in the vacuum or thrown in the rubbish!!
    Jill Robson recently posted…5 steps to help you start the organizing processMy Profile

    1. I do think it is reasonable to have a few basic rules that everyone must follow. A clear floor is one that is also important for safety reasons. I love that your little kitten taught a lesson – sometimes natural consequences speak volumes:)

  4. I am bookmarking this post for the future! With a ten year old on the cusp of ‘tween-hood,’ I have a feeling I’ll be dealing with this situation shortly. I’ll remember that ‘call to the hospital’ reference when I walk into his room in a few years. Thanks for the warning and some solutions to the challenges of organizing with teenagers! Will gladly pin this to my Organizing Kids Pinterest Board.

    1. It’s funny, even the neatest child can seem to morph into a different creature during the teen years. That’s why I spent so much time up front talking about the many weights that descend upon them, and to remind parents that they haven’t failed and that their children aren’t trying to upset them. In the meantime, age 10 is a pretty great age – enjoy!

  5. While my kids aren’t quite teenagers yet I have helped a few of my clients’ teen-aged children get their room and space organized. Always a challenge! Thanks for the help with my future teenage clients 🙂

    1. I think it is important to acknowledge that teenagers are “almost” adults, so parent really shouldn’t sweep in and throw their stuff away and treat them like they are toddlers. Important to get buy in from the teenagers when we are in their spaces… and to remember that this stage is temporary:)

  6. Seana, where were you when I was struggling with this?

    The one thing I did figure out was to insist that the mess be confined to his room, and that the door be closed if anyone was coming over. I know he cleaned it out periodically (I remember seeing bags of garbage coming out) but I don’t remember if it was dictated or if he decided on his own. I do know that it didn’t last very long. He didn’t seem to have any motivation to keep it clean, no matter how hard he worked to get it that way.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Virtual Organizing – Professional Organizers Blog CarnivalMy Profile

    1. Even I used to be that way, Janet. I think I liked the challenge of taking a big mess and making it significantly better. Daily tidying just didn’t motivate me, especially compared to the large amount of other responsibilities that I was dealing with at that stage. Closing the door is a beautiful thing!

  7. I love this Seana! I am dealing with this every day with both of my teens. I have gotten to the point that I want them to put their stuff in its “home” at the end of the day or after an activity is complete whichever comes first. Both of them are so busy with activities, that we have an agreement that on Saturday morning they must dust and vacuum their bedroom. But, I have now told them that they need to straighten and put stuff away too. They are OK with this because it is only once a week and I don’t have to pester them. I like that too.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Chalk Paint Armoire DIY Project TutorialMy Profile

  8. Ohh, the bathroom! I don’t know how on earth my parents have five of us as teenagers at once. For several years! The bathroom was the worst.
    I was a gamer but never got that taken away. I wish I remember what they did that worked.
    The late hours and the body maintenance. I can’t imagine it, even though I remember being a teen and I know I will have them soon enough.
    Tamara recently posted…Just Say YES to Holiday CookiesMy Profile

    1. I tell my clients with younger children that I understand, all you want is a bigger play room. Then I smile and say, “In about 8 years, all you will want is more bathrooms LOL!” Our needs change as we age, from childhood to teens to adult to parents to empty nester and to senior. I can’t imagine how your parents had five teenagers, either. My hat is off to them! Perhaps they are very patient people:)?

  9. Thanks for sharing this tricky parenting dilemma. Parents get lots of advice about what to do about their teens rooms. This gets to the heart of the issue. What you suggest is a coaching model to work together with your teen to help them be empowered in their own organizing. It’s going to take some collaboration, but it’s great place to start!

    1. In the end, it works so much better if the children feel respected and that their parent is an ally/supporter, not a nag. This is true for the “digital management” issue as well. If we can show our children that even adults are working to find healthy ways to put boundaries on social media and screen involvement, teens can see that parents aren’t trying to ruin their lives, but to help them be successful when they (shortly) leave home. A conversation where both parties listen is always the first step:)

  10. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t have a hard time during my teenage years. Haha. Something I can be really proud of. I’m very OC and organized and my mom would always commend the way I clean. I’m so happy!! 🙂

    I don’t have a teen yet. I have a husband and a son though so just imagine the mess. My husband is like a teen in the aspect of cleaning up. I hate to admit haha. But he is. His way of cleaning is not the same as mine. LOL. Even my son knows better. Sheeesh.
    Rea recently posted…Kalye Serye Bloggers’ Edition: The Ultimate Signature PoseMy Profile

    1. I tell parents who have a child who comes home and puts their things away and promptly completes homework that they are lucky… it isn’t necessarily the result of great parenting strategies, sometimes a child just enjoys being organized! Husbands can be a challenge. That was another post:)

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