“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 parent coaching 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.

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?

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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.

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.

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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.

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!”

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.

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 (17)
  • 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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