“My 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom is a complete mess. It looks like a tornado just ripped through it. And when I ask her politely to clean it up, she either ignores me or throws a fit!”
If this sounds like your child, you’re not alone. Many parents who use the Empowering Parents coaching service complain about their kids’ rooms being so messy they can’t walk through them. There’s dirty laundry piled in heaps on the floor. There are clean clothes that were never put away. Toys and stuff are everywhere. Papers and even garbage are scattered throughout. It’s incredibly frustrating, to say the least, to deal with a child who refuses to take care of their space.
With most typical children who refuse to clean their rooms, it comes down to this: they don’t want to. They’d rather be doing something else, like using electronics or texting their friends. Some kids get so immersed in a particular activity that it’s all they want to do. Look at it this way, if the choice is doing something fun versus something that feels like a chore, which are you going to choose?
Sometimes refusal to clean up is part of a larger, ongoing power struggle. If so, your child doesn’t just avoid cleaning but resists you and pushes your buttons with most everything. The more you try to control these kids, the more they push back and refuse. Their defiance leaves you feeling drained, angry, frustrated. You say to yourself, “We work hard to provide our child with a home and a room to sleep in. The least they can do is keep their 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. Remember that 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 their mess, and if they want to live like that, you can consider letting them do just that.
But allowing them to have a messy room isn’t always practical, 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 cleaning their room is a battle you choose to fight, here are four strategies to help you succeed.
Your child may genuinely need you to help them get started. Many of our kids, especially younger ones, don’t have good executive functioning and organizing skills. They may have trouble starting the task. In these cases, it’s okay to spend 15 to 30 minutes in the room with your child, where you show them the steps required to clean things up.
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 important that kids know your expectations. We assume they know how to do certain tasks, but often they don’t. They need help in the beginning.
At Empowering Parents, we call this hurdle help, and it’s a technique advocated by James Lehman, MSW, in the The Total Transformation® child behavior program. Hurdle help allows you to get your child going in a way that doesn’t result in you cleaning the room for them. Hurdle help gets them over the initial hurdle, which is typically the most difficult.
Is your child’s room a complete wreck? Can you barely walk around inside of it? If so, divide the room into quadrants and have your child work on one-quarter of the room at a time.
Alternatively, you can have them focus on one item at a time. For example, pick up all the clothes first. Then, pick up the toys and trash.
Breaking a large task down into smaller pieces is helpful for any child. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and think about how they might see it. They 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 for them. Have them tackle the problem incrementally.
That brings me to my next point about rooms: if your child is old enough to clean their room themselves, don’t do it for them. Don’t be a martyr. Your child needs to clean their own room.
Stepping in and cleaning your child’s room for them actually works against you. It shows your child that you don’t think they can do it on their own. And it shows them that if they drag their feet and resist you enough, you will give in and do it for them.
Doing it for them also sends the message that they don’t have to do what you say—that what you say isn’t what you mean. And make no mistake, when kids don’t think you mean what you say, your authority is in jeopardy.
Sure, doing it yourself might seem easier, but in the long run, it only contributes 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 independently. You just need to hold them accountable.
If your child fails to clean their room, be sure to use effective consequences instead of punishments. Task-oriented consequences are often the most effective, and failure to do a chore is the perfect situation for a task-oriented consequence. Here’s how this works in practice.
If your child fails to clean their room, put a privilege on hold until a certain part of the room cleaning task is complete. For example, if you decide that today all the clothes need to be picked up, don’t allow electronics until that’s done. Or, don’t let them go out with their friends. Either way, once the clothes are picked up, they get their privileges back. Therefore, the length of the consequence depends entirely on your child. In other words, they can get their privileges back immediately if they choose to pick up their clothes. No further discipline is needed.
Do consequences guarantee that your child will keep his room clean on his own from now on? No. But using effective consequences and rewards will help him learn the desired behavior over time. As James Lehman says, “You can lead a horse to water, and even though you can’t make him drink, you can make him thirsty.” And that’s what an effective consequence does. It makes your child thirsty so that they eventually choose to comply. Indeed, this is a big part of learning better behavior skills.
The bottom line is this: sometimes you can give kids every opportunity to accomplish something, and they will still decide not to do it. If so, that’s on them. In the end, you are not responsible for child’s behavior. Your job is to teach them, coach them, and set limits. 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 holding them accountable, that’s the best you can do. And if you stay persistent, their behavior will come around—we see it happen every day with the parents we work with.
How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
“I’ll Do It Later!” 6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.
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My nephews stay over at mine on most vacs. Whenever they are around the entire house (not just their room) becomes scattered in a few house.
Initially, I would get frustrated to no end and clean up after them. But as they got older, I started making them do the cleaning every time they got it messed up and this greatly reduced their zeal for messing the place up.
Turn off the wifi and plug your laptop to router with direct cable in back. You can go online but they can't.
Or invest in separate wifi service for you and cooperating children. Unplug the one that doesn't.
Take away the laptop and iPad. Works
There are so many things wrong with this. First, let's assume that this is a normal 13 year old, not one who is in a power struggle with mom, or has emotional problems, or a drug habit, or any of the other things mentioned in passing in this piece. Most likely, she is just plain lazy or defiant. Like you wrote, they just don't want to do it.
Okay. This is where the whole thing goes off the rails. Rooms do not get like this overnight. She shouldn't need "strategies" to conquer the giant mess. It got that way because she has been refusing to comply, probably for weeks or months. Your point is well taken about not cleaning it up for her. But that won't make her clean it, either.
Remember, she's THIRTEEN, not 7. She can do this herself. Give her a deadline. You say, "Today is Monday. If the room is not clean to my satisfaction by Friday, I am going to clean it for you, and that means I am going to simply collect up everything that is in the way into a lot of trash bags and throw it out."
She has a whole week. She has plenty of time to do it, periodically check with you to see if it meets with your approval, and keep cleaning if it doesn't.
If Friday comes and it's still a dump, you do exactly as you promised. Toys, clothes, makeup, mementos, ANYTHING... collect it up and out it goes to Good Will or the dump. I promise you, she will throw a fit, but she will never allow her room to get like that again.
Think this is ruthless or cruel? Really? And how many months or years has your teen been keeping their room like this, ignoring your repeated requests to clean their room? How long have they been utterly disrespecting you and your home by making a pig sty out of it with no regard to the fact that you provide it for them.
Let's remember who own the house, who is responsible for it, and who provides it.
People really need to step back and stop thinking of a 13 year old as a baby who's feelings shouldn't be hurt.
If they can't be bothered to keep a clean room, then you should not have to be bothered to look at it and wade through it. DUMP it. And if they slob it up again, do it AGAIN. They will eventually get it. They will be living in a bare room with nothing but walls and a bed if they can't keep their room clean.
You have giving your zillion warnings, and your punishments. None of that helps, does it? Nope. Because a kid who keeps their room like this cares more about getting out of the task than about meeting their obligations.
This is serious business. It's about respect for each others' property
and living space. It's about developing a habit of being a disorganized
slob that will follow her forever into adulthood if you don't stop it
I am a mom of 2 teens. The girl (13) in therapy and the boy 17 who's a total Self-absorbed 17 year old.
I've tried both ways and I've decided I'm ready to do a way with all Ms. Lazy's things. Today she decided to eat in her brother's room leaving her mess like he wouldn't know then lied about it!!!
If I hadn't found plates and such in her drawers and closets previously... I might give her benefit of the doubt.
I travel for work every week but momma's making time this weekend to get it in or should I say OUT!!!!
I hear you. It can be tough when a consequence not only
impacts the acting out child but her siblings as well. As the article above
suggests, you might consider using task-oriented
consequences or rewards. For example, you could withhold one of your daughter’s
privileges until she cleans up the mess she has made. It may also be helpful to
hold her accountable for using her sister’s things without permission by having
her make amends to her sister, as described in the articles Excuses, Excuses: 9 Tips to Get Your Child to Stop Making Excuses & “I Caught My Child Lying” — How to Manage Sneaky Behavior in Kids. I hope
this is helpful. Be sure to check back if you have any further questions. Take
I’m sorry you have to go through this, and yes, that is
pretty gross and unsanitary! To have your husband not be on the same page
around the cleanliness can be very challenging when trying to hold your
step-daughter accountable. In blended family situations, we typically encourage
the biological parent to take the lead role in setting expectations and holding
the child accountable, with the step-parent playing a support role. It is
difficult because this is your home too, however, if dad is not on the same
page in holding her accountable, your efforts to do so may be in vein. We would
recommend, instead, focusing on the things you do have control over, which is
how you choose to respond. If no one but your step-daughter uses her bathroom,
we would suggest not cleaning it for her. Doing so may be sending her the
message that even though you are asking her to clean it, she doesn’t need to
because it will be done by someone else. You might just close the door to her
room and bathroom. This also eliminates the power struggle, and may cause your
step-daughter to become uncomfortable with the mess and eventually clean it on
her own. Best of luck to you while you continue to address this issue with your