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4 Tips to Help Get Kids to Clean Their Rooms

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
4 Tips to Help Get Kids to Clean Their Rooms

 “My 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom is so awful it looks like a tornado just ripped through it! When I ask her to clean it up, she either ignores me or throws a fit!” If this sounds like your child, you are not alone. Many people who call the Parental Support Line complain of rooms so messy they can't walk through them, dirty laundry piled in heaps on the floor (along with the clean clothes) and garbage scattered throughout their kids' rooms. It’s incredibly frustrating, to say the least, to deal with a child who is refusing to take care of her space. So what’s a parent to do? Read on for more information and ideas that will help.

Related: Are you trapped in an ongoing power struggle with your child?

Note: If your child’s lack of cleanliness is coupled with behavior changes, declining academic performance, trouble with peers, or if he or she is functioning poorly overall, we recommend that you make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to discuss what is going on and rule out a mental health issue. This article is intended to address children for whom mental health issues have been ruled out.

With most typical children who refuse to clean their rooms, it comes down to this: they just don’t want to—and many kids are resistant to this task from time to time. It’s often more exciting to do something else, like watch TV or text their friends. Some kids get so immersed in a certain activity that it’s all they want to do. Look at it this way, if you’re faced with the choice of doing something you consider fun versus something that feels like a chore and is boring, which one are you going to choose?

Sometimes refusal to clean up is part of a larger, ongoing power struggle—one in which your child is not just motivated to avoid cleaning, but motivated to resist you and push your buttons in general. The more you try to control your child and push them to do what you are asking, the more they are going to push back and refuse. This leaves you feeling drained, angry and frustrated and thinking, “We work hard to provide our child with a home and a room to sleep in. The least she can do is keep her space clean!”
As aggravating as it can be, try not to take this behavior personally. Most kids go through a messy phase, but it has nothing to do with you or your parenting—and everything to do with them.

Related: How to stop over-functioning for your child.

When should you just “shut the door”?

Remember that whenever possible, shutting the door and "letting it go” is a perfectly reasonable choice you can make, especially if you have a lot of other challenging behavior issues you are working on with your child. After all, it’s his mess and if he wants to live like that, then you can consider letting him do just that. This doesn’t always work, especially if your child shares a room or if it’s so dirty that it’s contributing to a health issue like an infestation of pests. If a clean room is a battle you must pick, here are a few strategies you can try:

1) Divide and conquer. First of all, if your child’s room is a complete wreck that you can barely walk around inside of it, it might be really helpful to divide the room into quadrants and have your child work on one quarter of the room at a time. Or, have her focus on one item at a time—first trash, then clothes, then toys. Breaking a large task down into smaller pieces is helpful for any child. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and think about how she might see it: she might not know where to start and might be thinking, “Wow. I am never going to be able to get this done. What’s the point in trying?” So break it down and work at it using small steps at first.

2) Give “hurdle help.” Another thing to consider is hurdle help. Young kids especially might truly need you to help them get started. It’s okay to spend 15-30 minutes in the room with your child, depending his age, where you show him the steps required to complete the task. For example, you might teach your child to pick up the clothes on the floor, inspect them, and then either put the clothes in the hamper or put them away. It’s very important that kids know exactly what your expectations are. Many times we think they know how to do certain tasks, but they honestly don’t—they need to be shown the ropes first before they really get it. Hurdle help allows you the opportunity to role model a little bit for your child, which clarifies what you’re looking for in a way that doesn’t result in you cleaning the room for him.

Related: Unmotivated child?  Learn about hurdle help and other effective techniques to get your child going.

3) Don’t be a martyr. That brings me to my next point about rooms: if your child is old enough to do it herself, don’t clean your child’s room for her. Stepping in and cleaning your child’s room on your own actually works against you. It shows your child that you don’t think she can do it on her own and that if she drags her feet and resists you enough you will give in and do it yourself. It might even show her that she doesn’t really have to do what you say—that what you say isn’t what you mean.  Make no mistake, when kids get that message, your authority is in jeopardy. Sure, doing it yourself might seem easier, but in the long run it will simply contribute to your child’s lack of motivation around this chore. The rule of thumb is that once kids are in elementary school, they should be able to do most of the tasks involved in cleaning their rooms on their own. You will just need to hold them accountable.

4) Use task-oriented consequences. A good way to hold your child accountable for doing some work on his room is to put a privilege on hold until a certain part of the task is done. So if you decide that today all the clothes need to be picked up, the computer is on hold until that’s done. Then you work on something else tomorrow. Once your child does get the room picked up, it can be helpful to set up a weekly expectation for cleaning. This might mean their weekend doesn’t start until the room is clean (and again, be specific about what “clean” means). Does this guarantee that your child will keep his room clean on his own from now on? No. But using consequences and rewards will help him learn the desired behavior over time. As James Lehman says, “You can lead a horse to water and you can’t make him drink—but you can sure make him thirsty!”

Related: Discover the consequences that will work for your child and change their behavior.

The bottom line is this: Sometimes you can give kids every opportunity to accomplish something and they will still decide not to do it, and that’s on them. Your job is to provide the skills and the opportunity. Kids will always make their own choices no matter what; as long as you are problem-solving with your kids, using rewards and consequences to motivate them and hold them accountable,as well as supplying them with the necessary ‘tools’ to take care of themselves and their space, that’s the best you can do.


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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.

READER'S COMMENTS

I've found the ONLY thing that really works with my older kids (middle/high school) is to tie it to something THEY want. The key is to include "YES" in the statement. Examples: 15yo daughter: YES, I'd love to run you over to your friends house for a sleepover... just as soon as you finish cleaning up your room a bit. 13yo son: YES, I'll get those iTunes songs you want once your room is cleaned up. 11yo son: YES... you can have some ice cream for dessert just as soon as your room is clean.

Comment By : FoodForThought

LOVE the "Yes" suggestion! I will be trying that one very soon. We have just decided to "shut the door". The only time I insist things get cleaned up is if there is a smell - or a critter. Last time there was creatures, it was a pair of baby birds that were supposed to be a secret - except for their leavings. yuck. Kiddo spent most of a Saturday shampooing his carpet to get rid of the evidence. I don't expect we'll have any more visitors for awhile. I try not to go in his room unless absolutely necessary. I put clean laundry on the bed, and then I make a hasty retreat.

Comment By : KiddoLovesCritters

I love what 'Food for thought' does...I have 6 kids and i find that letting them do something they want after doing something they need to do is a really good way of getting things done and they actually really don't mind.

Comment By : mumof6

With my four and seven year old girls, I get the best results if I sit in their room with them and tell them ok pick up the barbies and put those away then the other will pick up the cars or whatever is on the floor. It seems to give them direction and if I am there they don't forget what they are doing and start playing with the toys instead of putting them away.

Comment By : Point and direct

What happens when it is the 24 yr old that does not want to clean his room, and is prepared to wait for the domestic, who comes in once a week, to do the clean up, whether it is making the bed, picking up the clothes from the floor, and separating them from clean and dirty?

Comment By : Joy

What I appreciated about the article, is that it made me realize this isn't an isolated problem: I'm not the only one experiencing it. Knowing I am not alone, makes me feel a bit better. So many people give advice on this issue. I've been told closing the door, and ignoring the mess, is not teaching my daughter responsibility, others have told me its my house, I should set the standards. I am somewhere in between. During the week, I close the door but on the weekends I want to see the floor. When clean clothes ended up on the floor, she had to do her own laundry for a month.

Comment By : mamalicious

I have 4 kids - the youngest is 9 and oldest is 14- they are ALL slobs! When it comes to their rooms I only get involved if I notice they're beginning to wear clothes that are obviously dirty. I'm having a hard time letting any of my kids be the smelly kid in class. Generally I take all privileges away until the room is clean and laundry is washed. Yes, they all do their own laundry. Lately though, I've been wondering if letting the natural consequence of wearing dirty clothes take its course might not serve them better. It's really only the boys that will do that, my girls wouldn't be caught dead in dirty, wrinkled clothing. What do you think?

Comment By : busymomof4

I LOVE EP. A NEW solution to an OLD problem. I'm going to use this TODAY as soon as I get home to get my kidz to FINALLY clean the upstairs bathroom, which I do believe has been deemed a scientific experiment...

Comment By : luvmykidz

* To “Joy”: Thank you for sharing your story and asking a great question. Having an adult child living at home can definitely offer some challenges, not the least of which is reluctance to clean up after himself. I can certainly understand your frustration. In his 3 part series on adult children, James Lehman suggests developing a living agreement with your son. This is a contract of sorts that clearly outlines what the rules and expectations are for you son while he is living in your home. It can include specific chores, such as keeping his room clean. It can also include what the consequences will be if he doesn’t meet those expectations. I can hear it’s important to you that your son keeps his room clean. That isn’t an unreasonable expectation. We would suggest sitting down with your son and coming up with a living agreement of your own, as James outlines in the article Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement? You can also let him know what the consequence will be for not meeting those expectations; for example, maybe you can hold your son responsible for paying a portion of the cleaning services fee. If you would like to read the other two articles in the series, you can access them by following these links: Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I & Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “busymomof4”: Thank you for sharing your story and telling us how you manage this behavior with your children. It is very much in line with what we would suggest as an effective way to address that behavior. The natural consequences of allowing your children to wear dirty clothes can also be an effective way of dealing with their reluctance to clean their room or do their laundry. It’s difficult to say which method is going to be more effective because it usually depends upon the individual child and the situation. There are some children that really aren’t going to care whether their clothes are dirty or be bothered by what other kids may say. It sounds like withholding a privilege until the task is complete is proving to be an effective motivator for your boys. We would suggest sticking with your current approach if it’s working. If not, then allowing the natural consequences to take place may be more effective. Best wishes to you and your family as you continue to address this behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Tough Love does not always work. I have a 21 year old who flat out doesn't care and goes into a rage about giving her consequences. Throws stuff, kicks walls, tears up her stuff and says the usual "you don't care about me, all you care about is the money(things) you have and will not give them to me because you want to punish me(For not following rules)and criticize me all the time" And on and on about how bad a parent I am!!!

Comment By : Tired parent

EP - it worked!! The upstairs bathroom is clean!! I mean, not to my standards completely, but the mold is out of the bowl, the sink is cleaner, everything is OFF the floor, the mirror is clean, the trash is dumped and there is actually an order coming out of there that is NOT foul...they even vacuumed the floors upstairs! Just so they could get their computer time. Which is already set to only an hour a day anyway, thanks to EP boundary setting. What would I do without you people?!? BTW, my kidz are 15 (son with ADD) and 13 (daughter who's a diva - lol) and I've been using EP for about 5 years now - just going by the advice of the newsletters. Awesome!!

Comment By : luvmykidz

15 yr old twins boys share a room. One is Felix the other is Oscar from the Odd Couple. Felix cleans up after Oscar, which teaches Oscar nothing. I keep telling Felix not to cleanup after his brother, but he cannot help himself/find it very difficult to live like a slob (which I don't blame him). How can I stop the Felix cycle?

Comment By : MotherofTwins

My daughter's room is just as described. She is now doing her own laundry as I kept getting clean clothes in the laundry with the dirty ones. She doesn't do laundry often so wears the same clothes over and over (how can school mates stand to be near her is my question). I also do not buy her clothes anymore. I've given up on getting cds or dvds for gifts as well as they end up on the floor to get scratched or stepped on. Now the big issue is the filth that accumulates. Her door is always closed. She goes to camp for most of the summer so then we have to go in her room to tend to her pet rabbit. That's when it is either cleaned by her before she goes...or she comes home to a lot less stuff...

Comment By : momof2girls

I ask my boys(13,aspergers syndrome 12,ADHD )every so often to tidy their rooms, and if they dont, then the natural consequence is, no more clean clothes. This teaches them that they are responsible to tidy up!

Comment By : tidyboys

I have a 16-year-old son who is VP of the student body, an intern in the mayor's office, a 4.2 student who everyone loves. But when he gets home, he trashes not only his room but our home, leaving food, cups, plates all over the place. We have taken away privileges until jobs are done and this gets the job done. The verbal abuse, manipulation and anger are his normal way of dealing with us when he doesn't get what he wants. It's always about what terrible parents we are because we require him to pick up after himself. What I am concerned about is that I feel my son is playing a role in front of everyone else but who he really is is the boy we see at home who lacks character and has no respect for those who care the most and give the most. I don't want to think he's a phony. Nor do I want him carrying this attitude that out there is important but what happens in the home is not into his future family. Too many workaholics giving it their all out there and then going passive at home. Any advice?

Comment By : Boz

* To “MotherofTwins”: Thank you for taking the time to share your story. You ask a great question. You’re correct that Oscar isn’t learning how to be responsible for himself when his brother cleans up after him. It’s probably going to be difficult to get Felix to not clean their room if he’s the type of child who finds it difficult to live in a messy room. You can, however, still hold Oscar accountable for not pitching in and doing his part. First, we would suggest setting clear expectations as to which child is responsible for which chores. Then, link the completion of those chores to specific privileges, possibly access to electronics or being able to spend time with friends. It might be helpful to have a time frame during which the chores are to be completed. If Oscar still hasn’t completed his chores, then he doesn’t earn the privilege. If Felix ends up doing Oscar’s chores, then have Oscar make it up to Felix either by paying him out of his allowance or by allowing Felix to have some of Oscar’s electronic time. Here are a couple of articles you may find useful in helping to motivate Oscar: Does Your Child Say This? "I'll do it later." & Teflon Kids: Why Children Avoid Responsibility—and How to Hold Them Accountable. Take care and good luck to you and your family.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “boz”: Thank you for sharing your situation with us. I can understand why you would feel like your son is playing a role when he behaves so much differently with people outside the family. It can be confusing and frustrating and can cause parents to worry what this behavior may predict for adulthood. As Sara Bean discusses in her article Angel Child or Devil Child? When Kids Save Their Bad Behavior for You, some kids will strive to get approval from teachers and other adults in their lives and this approval will reinforce the appropriate behavior seen in school and in public. From what you have described about your son, this seems to be true for him. Sometimes parenting can feel like a thankless job, as Janet Lehman discusses in her article A Message from Janet Lehman: Does Parenting Feel Like a Thankless Job? (Then Read This.). One of the suggestions she makes is to take some time to acknowledge what you’re doing right. The fact your son is this successful academically points to the excellent job you have done instilling some great values, even if it may not feel like that right now. We would suggest continuing to hold him accountable for the behaviors you’re seeing at home. He’s probably not going to be happy with that and you may continue to see the pushback you’re seeing. By having clear expectations and holding your son accountable for the choices he makes, you are doing the best job you can to ensure he grows up to be the kind of adult you want him to be. He may be telling you you’re terrible parents; from what you’ve told us, it sounds like you’re doing a pretty great job. We wish you the best as you and your family continues working through these challenges. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Tieing cleaning their room to loss of a privelege was a tenique that worked in Junior High. It's alot harder once my children reached High School though. I had to work harder at tieing it to a reward or a privelege that was really important to them. It is always a challenge to figure out what that reward or privelege is though. I suppose it was because their interests changed so quickly.

Comment By : mylindaelliott

For my elementary school aged daughter I will write several tasks on strips of paper things such as: Pick up everything that is pink and find a home for it, pick up everything that you might wear on your head, pick up everything that will fit in this shoe box. On some slips of paper I will include sing your ABC's as loud as you can while running around the back yard, drink this rootbeer till you can burp your name, do the chicken dance, etc. Anything silly. She keeps going because I change it up each time. This helps her in her reading skills as well, but that's a secret!

Comment By : Gina

Sometimes I make a deal with my daughter. She cleans another part of the house, usually a chore I don't like and I clean her room for the same amount of time.

Comment By : Terri

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