Dear 1-on-1 Coaching: Help! My Teen’s Room is a Pigsty!

Posted September 29, 2008 by

Dear 1-on-1 Coaching:

Help! My teen-aged daughter’s room is a complete pigsty. I work hard to keep the house clean, but every time I walk past her door, I just get so frustrated. Clothes, half-eaten food, and papers everywhere. When I tell her to clean her room, she tells me she’ll do it “later.” When she does eventually get around to it, most times she just moves one pile of clothes to another part of her room. How can I get her to clean her room according to my specifications, which honestly, is just good hygiene?

Jenny in Peoria, Illinois

Dear Jenny,

Children often have a vastly different idea of what “clean” is. They seem to be able to live in a disorganized mess without any difficulty at all! It’s important to understand that most children are somewhat messy by nature. If you expect them to care about cleanliness and order, you will often be disappointed. Before you sit down with your child, think about what you need in order to feel your child’s room is acceptable. You’ll be more successful if your expectations fall somewhere between your child’s “all-out mess” and your “everything in its place.” Some parents institute a “clean before the school week” policy, in which they ignore their child’s messy room throughout the weekend, but insist that it be clean and organized to begin the start of the week.

If you are struggling with enforcing a “clean room’ policy, here are some tips that might help:

First, sit down with your child and have a discussion about the rules and expectations in your household around cleaning. You might say something like, “Cleaning your room is your responsibility. It doesn’t need to be spotless, but it does need to meet my criteria for clean, not yours.” Present your expectations clearly and thoroughly. If you say “your room needs to be clean,” that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Be specific: “your room is clean when the clean clothes are folded and put away, dirty clothes are in the hamper, and any dishes are put in the dishwasher. Your bed needs to be made, and your trash can needs to be emptied. I need to be able to actually see your floor.” Some families even have a checklist so that nothing is overlooked.

Many children will try to debate with you about their room, claiming that it is “their space,” or that it is clean enough for them. If this happens, do not explain or defend your rules. Simply state, “You don’t have to agree with the rules. You do need to figure out how to comply with them.” Remember, if you are trying to make your child live up to conditions you would live in, you will likely be disappointed. Present an expectation that is reasonable, and don’t defend or explain it.
If your child refuses to have the discussion, or puts it off until later, you can say, “I know this isn’t your favorite topic. We do need to discuss it. You do not have access to electronics until we have this discussion. I’m available until 7 pm tonight.” Once you’ve said this, walk away from your child. Do not continue to engage in a debate or argument.

Many parents tell their child to clean their room, only to be met with “I’ll do it later.” Twenty minutes later, you have to tell them again. An hour later, they’re still playing video games, and you’re frustrated and angry. Instead of telling your child to “do it now,’ give them a clear time range. Let them know that if their room is not clean by a certain time, they will lose a privilege for that day. For example: “You have until 5 pm to clean your room. If it’s not done by 5, you lose TV for the night, and you’ll have to try again tomorrow.” When you present the information in this way, you no longer have to remind your child to get it done. They have to take the responsibility to complete the chore, or face the consequence. For really tough cases, you could offer: “Your room needs to be cleaned up every day by 5 pm. When you’ve been able to do that for 5 days in a row, you can go down to picking up your room every other day.” Whatever you decide, stick with it. Your consistency will help your child change his or her behavior.

By the way, If you are a Total Transformation customer, you can access 1-on-1 Coaching Service for help with this and other challenges you’re experiencing with your child. 1-on-1 Coaches have helped hundreds of parents customize a plan of action to help children take responsibility for their rooms, and we can help you, too. Specialists can also work with you to formulate realistic, appropriate consequences to help enforce your household rules. Stick with it, and let us know how it works!



Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

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  1. SaseboBoy Report

    I was looking for teens room websites, I guess this one: and found this site as well, very good information.
    What I could not convince my wife of is the if you do not control the issue when young, in their 20’s it isn’t going to get better, so now we are simply stating, move it or lose it. At 23, you ought to be able to clear your room. However, not it is one zone at a time, starting with the floor. Two weeks ago literally a foot deep, now just a few items. everything else is on dressers and such, drawers left pen, etc. very much like the rooms pictures at the site above. But we have actually had several insect problems in her room.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Megan Devine, LCPC and Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear Vikki – Your situation sounds unbelievably challenging. You certainly can’t ignore such a health hazard, and your son needs to learn the skills necessary for basic hygiene. You don’t mention if you are a Total Transformation customer, but if you are, you have access to the Parent Support Line. Support Line Specialists can help you walk through this process with your son over time, and give you the support and encouragement you need. The Program itself has valuable tools that will help you with any ineffective or inappropriate behaviors your son might have, including hygiene issues.

    To get you started, I’d like to give you some suggestions. First, I would remove the video games and computer from your son’s room – not permanently, but in order to get his attention. Then, sit down with him, without lecturing (as best you can!), and tell your son that he needs to start cleaning his room. Don’t focus on the whole picture at once, as that would be overwhelming, and we want him to be successful. Choose one or two issues that are most pressing – food waste would be a good place to start. Don’t try to convince him of the necessity of good hygiene, just simply let him know what is expected: “We need to have a discussion about your room. We’ve removed your video games and computer. When you have picked up the trash and the food waste from your room, and put them in the trashcan, you can have your games back until bedtime. Every day, you’ll have a chance to earn video game time. When the food and trash is out of your room, you’ll get game time. If it isn’t done, you’ll lose games for the day, and you get to try again the next day. You have to get better at this.” Then, walk away.

    You can expect him to complain, and yell, and do whatever he usually does when you set limits on his behavior. Ignore him, to the best of your ability. Calmly restate: “I’d be happy to give you game time once the food and trash is out of your room and in the trashcan.” If possible, keep the video games and computer out of his room. When he earns game time, let him play in the living room, or other public area. You could let him know that when he has kept the trash and food picked up for 5 days in a row, he can earn having the computer back in his room. That might give him extra incentive to start practicing these basic hygiene skills. You can also expect that he will lose game time for a few days, as he is being required to practice new skills – failure is to be expected as part of the learning process. Once he’s been successful with the food and trash, you can move on to tackle the laundry, or his school papers.

    Good luck with this process, let us know how this suggestion works!

  3. Vikki Stefans Report

    The advice to ignore it and pick other battles is hittingn a sore spot with me. We can’t. We are not talking about clutter and unmade beds, we are talking about several days worth of dishes, trash, sugary spills left to ferment in wastebaskets, the entire supply of towels for the whole family, two weeks worth of laundry, clean and dirty mixed together and all needing rewashed, no clothes to wear in the AM, mold and mildew, roaches and ants. It smells. He sits in the middle of it playing video games or online until we pull the plug. I am allergic to mold. It has made me physically ill more than once. ALL of my time to work on anything in the home is eaten up by simply attempting to keep things on the good side of Dept. of Health standards. I am often late to work and then late to get back home because of this problem. Cleaning services will not go into rooms like this. And every other room in the house is left a mess as well. Every room in the house has dirty laundry somewhere, and his school books and papers are scattered throughout and may even be left outdoors. I have to clean and flush toilets almost daily to boot. Our counselor was sort of advising the same thing -hey it’s his room, what’s the big deal – UNTIL he saw a photograph.

  4. Karen Report

    I had the same problem with my children! Finally, I made 3 x 5 cards, with steps to accomplishing my minimum stadards for their room. I have these for their bedroom, and other chore areas, like the bathroom and kitchen. For ex. 1.make your bed 2. clothes put away, etc. It helped clarify my expectations and made it less overwhelming for my children.

  5. Monica Report

    My rule for my teenagers is that Friday is “clean the bedroom” time. I’ve tried to get them to keep it neat during the week but it was a continual battle. Now, if they don’t clean their room on Friday, it means NO tv, computer, seeing friends, etc. for the whole weekend. And even if their room gets messy during the week, it’s not so much to clean up at least once a week.

  6. Aurelia Report

    I can really sympathize with you. I’d suggest picking one task first…such as clothes in their place..and working on just that. This should be a daily requirement so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming for her. Having to take care of a week’s worth of clothes that have been laying on the floor, crammed under, behind the bed, stuffed in half-closed drawers, etc.. will just encourage aviodance, but one days worth of clothes to either put in the hamper or back in the closet/drawers is manageable. I would recommend it be the same time every day, preferrably right before she usually gets a priviledge she normally enjoys like, watching t.v., talking on the phone, or computer time, whatever it may be. Linking the task to be done “before” the reward is key also. So, in summary, simplify at first: One task, daily, same time each day BEFORE she gets her reward. If she doesn’t want to comply you MUST allow her the choice to not do it…but with choices come consequences. Her priviledge will not be given until she complies. No arguing, no reminding, no cojoling, no anger. And MOST of all, she has to believe that you really want her to comply so she can earn enjoy her privilege. If she thinks you are using this as revenge to to assert your authority, it will not work. You can even say “I think it’s really important for you to have free time to relax and watch your favorite program, so please remember about your clothes so you can have that time today”.

  7. Judy Report

    Your advice is great. However my 13 yr old daughter just doesn’t get it. I have tried check lists, taking away privilages, guitar, TV etc. If she does clean her room she takes the entire weekend and it’s still messy. She approaches homework the same way (do it quick and get it over with. She handles her personal hygene the same way. She has ADHD with no meds.(we tried that route but to many side effects) She is very smart but extremely lazy. I’m at my wits end.

  8. Vera Report

    Finally. Advice other than “Choose your battles and let them keep their room the way they want it. It’s not the worst thing in the world”. No, it’s not the worst thing, but I think now is when they develop good habits and it’s important for them to live in a uncluttered room. i used to notice that my daughter (now 19) was in a better mood when her room was clean. “stress is mess”. Also, health wise it’s important. How can you get a vacuum in a room that is so cluttered with junk! I implemented a system for my 13 year old with ADD. For him to remember what he has to do in his room, he remembers B-C-D. B for Bed, make the bed. C for Clothes off the floor and D for Drawers closed. he cannot go out after school or have friends over until he does those 3 things. Now he does it (most of the time) in the morning.

  9. Jackie Report

    Thanks for this great advice. My kids’ rooms are just horrible. I actually have stopped asking them to clean their bedrooms because they ignored me and I felt powerless. Thanks for reminding me that I do have a choice here, too!



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