“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.
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.