Messy Bedroom Blues: Solutions for Parents and Children
Are you frustrated with a child who won't clean his room?
You trip over your toddler's toys on the way to his closet. Your eight year old has a perpetual explosion of Legos on his bedroom floor. Your teenaged daughter is growing "science experiments" in various drinking glasses around her room. These are some common messy bedroom problems that every parent faces at one time or another. Often it becomes an ongoing struggle between parent and child that seems to have no solution. Take heart! The answers to the bedroom blues may be easier than you think!
Like most parenting issues, solutions to behavior problems differ with the age of the child. This can be tricky when children share a room, but try to have each child in charge of his own space. Your long-term goal is what you should be focused on - helping your child to grow into a reasonably neat and organized person so that he can better manage his life as an adult. It shouldn't be about your standards or your discomfort with messiness. It is a developmental process that your child needs your help with.
Helpful Books for Young Children
Cleaning with the Very Young Child
Ages 2 to 5
Let's start with the toddler's/pre-schooler's room. Little ones have zero self-discipline. They are geared toward short-term gratification. A very small child may not get the concept of neat vs. messy at all. There is no need to make neatness an issue with a 2 to 5 year old. At this stage, you are in charge of the level of neatness and organization in their room. Your actions serve as a model for your child, who is just beginning to learn about routines.
The best way to keep a pre-schooler's room in decent order is to stay on top of it. Since children at this age need constant minding anyway, make it part of the supervision of your child to pick up as you go along through the day. Don't do it all yourself, however! The child should be doing as much as possible of the clean-up with you. In fact, this strategy should begin as soon as the child is walking. Even a one year old is capable of picking up toys, one by one, and dropping them in a basket. They won't know they're cleaning, but the earlier you begin the "clean up after yourself" habit, the better. Certainly a 2 to 5 year old can help pick up clothes and put them in the hamper, line stuffed animals up on the bed or hold the garbage bag open as you empty their bedroom trash can. Don't be discouraged if the very young child gets distracted and doesn't keep up with you. Their ability to stay on-task is often not so good at this age. As long as they help some with a variety of chores in their room, that's enough for now.
Strategies for the Older Child
Ages 6 to 12
The older child is a different animal. By the age of 6 or so, their attention span has increased, and they are beginning to develop the ability for self-discipline. This is the period in your child's development where you will give them the most guidance when it comes to cleaning their rooms. You are still in charge of keeping the room neat, but the child should do more and more of the work each year, with you first as helper, and then supervisor. Working together with the child is a better strategy than sending her off to clean her room herself, until she is ready to do so. Choose a general pick-up time when the two of you will do a quick tidying of her room. Just after supper or right before the bedtime routine begins is a good time.
The room should not be in total shambles, if you are staying on top of the child and encouraging her to clean up as she goes along. If your child is not good at this, it probably means that you need to take the lead for a while longer. Don't pick up after a child of this age yourself, but it's fine to start picking up the Legos and have the child do it alongside you until the job is done. If your child is getting good at putting things away after use, all the better! Be sure to offer positive reinforcement by praising the child when he puts something away without being told.
A word of warning here - if you are a neat-nick and can't stand the smallest thing out of place, you're probably going to have to lighten up a bit. As I have said, this is not really about you and your needs with regard to cleanliness, Your priority is to help your child develop good habits for himself, and his bedroom is his turf where he can do this. If you run around, obsessively cleaning up after a child, not only does it take away from the child's opportunity to learn from doing it, but it will eventually cause resentment and rebellion. You must be willing to let your child be himself, and at the age of 7, that probably means a bedroom that is not perfect.
By the age of 9 or 10, your child should have a good foundation for knowing how to keep his bedroom fairly neat. She should know how to make a bed, how and where to sort toys, how to fold and put away clothing items, and where trash and dirty laundry is supposed to go. In addition, his capacity to stay on task and to discipline himself has further developed. It's time for you to back off a bit and let him take over. That won't work, my child is a slob! Okay, then you may have to use a few strategies to encourage them to keep things tidy.
3 Techniques For a Cleaner Bedroom
1) You see that your child's room is a disaster. You remark "Oh, your room is kind of a mess, Rachel". No disgust or irritation in your voice! Just an observation. It lets the child know that you noticed the state of her room. She may actually not have noticed herself. For some children, this will be enough to get them to pay more attention to their habits with regard to keeping their room tidy.
2) You notice that, surprise surprise! - your child has actually picked something up and put it away in his room. You say to the child "Randy, I notice you put your Legos away. Good going!" That's all. Don't launch into a lecture about if he'd only do that all the time, etc, etc. You want the positive remark from you to have an impact, not be bogged down with accusations and expectations. You may have to look hard to find something to praise your child about, but when you do see something, don't let the opportunity pass to praise his effort.
3) The bedroom is totally out of control. You've used the first two strategies and nothing has changed. First of all, keep doing the first two! One or two interactions is never going to be enough. Parenting strategies like this must be done over and over and over again to work well. But okay, the room looks like a cyclone went through. You say to your child "Diana, your room looks like it really needs some help! Let's work on it together this Saturday, and if we get it done we'll take ourselves out to get an ice cream." You are making it a team effort. It's something that you both want and are working toward together, and you are building in a positive reinforcement by adding the ice cream (which mostly means spending time with your child) to the deal.
But the room won't stay clean for very long! Probably not. But while it is clean, be sure to remark on how nice it is to walk into the room. Again, no adding "if you'd pick up after yourself, it would stay this way". Chances are, your child will feel good about the room being tidy. Most of us feel more comfortable in a room that is reasonably in order. There's a good chance that this motivation, plus your little prompts, will get the child to start picking up the room more. If not, then cleaning with the child reinforces organizational skills that they may not have mastered quite yet.
Your Messy Teenager
Ages 13 to 18
Then we get to the teenaged years. Okay, here we go! Once your child turns 13 or 14, it is time for the hands-off approach. With my kids, there were two rules. 1) No rotting foods or pet accidents may be left in the room. That is, no bio-hazards! It is reasonable to insist that they don't attract ants or allow the room to be in a condition that could be harmful to their health. 2) You must be able to close the door. No piles of laundry in the way, etc. Aside from that, let it go. That's right, I said let it go. By this age, your child has the capacity for the self-discipline that it takes to keep a room neat if he wants to, and you know that he knows how to do it. Your job now is to let your child keep his room, his turf, in whatever way he wants it.
This may be hard to swallow, as many teens are total slobs. But in a few short years, your child will be out on her own, and she needs to start taking the helm on things such as taking responsibility for her surroundings, even if that means not cleaning at all. Your child is the one who has to live there, not you. If you insist on a clean room from a teenager, you are asking for a power struggle. That doesn't make any sense. After all, as long as you don't have bio-hazards in the room and you can close the door, what does it hurt to let them live in a pigpen? Forcing a teen to adhere to your standards with regard to his space will not only cause major resentment and invite rebellion, it also doesn't allow him to experience the results of his own choices. If you make the choices for him all the way until he leaves the home, then he'll have to make his own for the first time when he is going to be under a lot of stress, adjusting to becoming an independent adult.
Helpful books for Parents
Absolute best advice for parenting your teen!
But don't despair! If you have a good relationship with your teenager, it's still okay to offer to help her clean on occasion. That doesn't mean making her clean with you every Saturday! No more than twice per year, you can offer to help her do a cleaning blitz. If she agrees, you set aside a day and go at it in good spirits, without remonstrations. The idea here is to remind her about the organizational skills that she has, and to let her experience an orderly room. She may decide she likes it better than the messy one! But if she doesn't want you to help clean, or she lets the clean room get messy again, drop it. You will survive, and once she gets out on her own, you may be shocked to find that her dorm room is immaculate!
I have used these strategies with my clients, and with my own three teenagers. All three were total slobs at one time, and my two daughters (ages 24 and 17) are now very neat and organized. My son (22), not so much, but that's him. I know that he knows how to clean and maintain if he wants to, and who can tell, he may yet decide that he wants his apartment neater. I know that I have done my job.
*What to do if your child is swearing!
*Learn the difference between discipline and punishment.
© Katharine L. Sparrow, MSW
*Katharine Sparrow has worked as a psychotherapist with children and families for many years, focusing on parenting issues and behavior problems.
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