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“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!”

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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.

1. Help Your Child Get Started

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.

2. Have Your Child Focus on One Part of Their Room at a Time

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.

3. Don’t Clean Your Your Child’s Room for Them

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.

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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.

4. Use Effective Consequences

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.

Conclusion

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.

Related Content:
How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
“I’ll Do It Later!” 6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now

About

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.

Comments (18)
  • Babymommysquad.com

    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.

  • Sandy
    Love this, Military Mom/Grandma... In spite of the fact that I have 31 yrs of Military Service and supervised and kept my young Warriors in check and had/have a super Drill Sergeant mentality, my grandchildren run circles around me with the uncleanliness... I'm currently raising my youngest grandchild/boy and heMore been with me since he was 6 mths old... now soon to be 13... I raised two girls totally different environment, his room, I labelled it .. the Abyss ... God throw me a curb ball with him that I had no incline how to manage... but this small insight has enlighten my world to a new Dawn... LOL... G-Ma is going to implement a the strategy and action immediately... cause as a Military Women, I totally see the logistics behind the whole action and I am so loving it... G-Ma is on a new mission... this tip was truly helpful... I love it...
  • singlemom.com
    my 13 year old daughter constantly is in her room making more of a mess, i can get her to clean it by threatening to take away her stuff but then 2 days later its a total mess so finally i stopped and its been 4 months and her roomMore is bad. there are no sheets on her bed and cups all over her dresser and worst of all under her bed. her floor has clothes all over it. i cant seem to get her to clean it. i took her phone for something she did in school. i told her id give it back if she cleaned her room thinking this might motivate her but all she said was "what just so you can take it again" i cant do anything to get her to clean her room. she isnt a bad kid, she does good in school and rarely gets into trouble but the stuggle is constantly real being a single mom and getting her to listn i do my best but nothing works
  • RJ

    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.

  • Evelyndorv
    Difficult teens are difficult because they have gotten into the habit of people constantly doing everything for them. Its difficult to get them started at the age of 8years old than 3years old. If a 3 year old is being difficult, you can easily shape them and convince them byMore implementing some form of punishment such as time out or reinforcement. Be careful with reinforcement and rewards. The only problem I have with reinforcement and reward is that kids can wind up in that state of mind as an adult that everything should be rewarded or given if they complete a task.
  • Evelyndorv
    In order for teens and kids to keep up with their task and chores it starts as early as the age or 3 or 4. For example when they are about 3 years old you can ask them to do little task such as feeding themselves, picking up their platesMore when they are done, drop something pick it up or little small task that does not take away from their ability to perform as a normal 3 year old. Eventually by the time they reach the age 5 they are officially known as the helper around the house. They will help with the laundry, assist with the dishes, helping around with what ever you ask of them to do. As they get older they will continue with their chores on their own without any fuss or fight.
  • AmandaLynnJenkins
    I have 2 girls and 2 boys and it is almost impossible for me to get them to clean there rooms.. Ive even tried to bribe them and nothing they just dint want to im thinking the only thing I can do is clean everything put it into a bagMore and pack it away and have them earn there stuff back :(
  • JoyStewart
    My grandson ,horrible
  • Betty Fitzgerald
    Great article! I have 17-year-old son.His room is a nightmare. I don`t dare to start to clean. I am going to make him clean it. I am going to follow your tips! I will start with one task after another. I hope it works! Greetings!
  • Sue

    Take away the laptop and iPad. Works

    Great!

  • problemsolved
    Everynight before my 2 girls go to bed, we have a nightly routine. They shower, brush their teeth, then pick up their rooms, leaving them about 20 minutes to do whatever they would like. I give them each 5 dollars a week as a type of reward, and hope thatMore it will help them keep their rooms nice and clean.
  • MrGuy

    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

    now.

    • Momfedup

      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!!!!

    • KTStL
      What would you suggest for a 14 year old who shares a room with her sister. We can't just scoop up everything and dump it, because it's not the sister's fault that the other one went through all of her clothes and then left them all over the floor. SheMore even left her sister's drawers open. I'm trying to think of a way to punish one without punishing both of them. I worried that she's going to grow up to be a narcissistic jerk.
      • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

        KTStL

        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

        care.

  • FedupStepMom
    Tackle this one for me.  I am a step-mom to a 22 year old girl whose mother didn't want to be bothered with teaching her daughter how to clean up after herself.  So her room and bathroom are terrible.  I mean, week old food, dishes, glasses with liquids and moldMore in them, the entire floor covered with clothing, games and art supplies, dirty TAMPONS! yes, you read that correctly.  To make matters worse, her father does not back me up when I try to apply any type of consequences and says "she will decide to learn to clean up when she decides it is important."  I can't live in filth so we constantly fight about this and I end up feeling like the maid as I am cleaning her filthy bathroom.
    • Marissa EP

      @FedupStepMom 

      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

      step-daughter.

  • juditn
    ForConsideratoin Plort Exactly on the point.  I had the same attitude about their cleaning up their room.  My two girls got weekly points for orderliness and got their pocket money accordingly.
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