Organizing With Teenagers


Do you have a teenager, and his/her room is driving you crazy? Maybe the bathroom is even worse: it smells like gym socks or is covered in make-up and hair bands. The days of the perfectly made bed seem far away, and you have lowered the bar way down to “Can you please not leave food on the floor where the dog will get it?” You wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

The answer may very well be, “You didn’t!”  As with many aspects of teenage life, the spaces that teenagers inhabit are often chaotic.  On the list of priorities, cleaning up is pretty low. I know.  I have had two teenage girls, and with a professional organizer for a mother, they had repeatedly been taught organizing and executive functioning skills! In my years observing them, I came to two conclusions:

CONCLUSION #1: A teen’s unwillingness to clean up is not an act of rebellion or a sign that you have failed as a parent.

When a teenager leaves his room in a state of disorder, he most likely is not trying to upset you. Rather, his room is just the symptom of the complexity of his life. Most teens spend all of their energy trying to balance a wide variety of pressures (e.g. schoolwork, social concerns, activities…), and the state of their rooms is the least of their concerns.

A few realities are typical for today’s teenagers…

They are busy. Teens have very full schedules, often being “on call” from early in the morning until they go to bed. This would be difficult for anyone, but especially for those who may not yet have well-developed time management skills.

They keep late hours. It is common for teen body clocks to shift, making it difficult to fall asleep. As a result, a teenager will sleep until the last possible minute in the morning, leaving little time for making the bed, straightening the room, etc.

They spend more time on body maintenance. Teenagers, especially girls, tend to increase the amount of time they spend getting ready in the morning. Looking good matters a lot, while cleaning up matter less.

They have a lot of stuff. Whereas in elementary school your child only needed a toothbrush and a hairbrush, now he may have retainers, deodorant, contact lenses, razors, acne cream, etc. The sheer volume of items required for his increasingly adult body can be significant. The little corner of the bathroom counter that your daughter used to share with her sibling may now be insufficient, but she is too busy to try and figure out a better solution. In addition, the backpack, which used to have a couple of folders, now has many books, sports gear, a cell phone, ear buds, make-up, gym clothes, car keys, an ID, and more. Most teens are struggling to manage all this stuff.

Teenage behavior is similar to the way we react in a crisis situation. If a hospital were to call and tell you that your father has had a heart attack, you probably wouldn’t take the time to polish the sink before dashing off to the ER. For many teens, each day seems to be full of “calls from the hospital.”

CONCLUSION #2: Teenagers aren’t likely to suddenly become organized, so you need to find ways to “negotiate” some boundaries you can both live with.

  1. Invite your teen to a special time to discuss the issue. Go where your teen wants to go (ice cream, in front of Xbox, whatever). Say “I know we’ve been having some strife over the way you maintain your belongings. I don’t like having bad feelings about this. I wanted to just sit down and talk to you about it because you are a great kid and I know we can find some way to figure this out.” By opening up with some positive words, you put your teen at ease.
  2. Ask, “How do you feel about the way you keep your things? Do you feel that your system is working for you? Would you like any help in changing the way your space is organized?” This is an important question because some teens would actually like having an organized space, but they just don’t know how to make it happen. If you are lucky enough to have this as the root of the problem, set aside time to work together, tackling one area at a time. Empty the space, de-clutter, group like items, and get any bins, shelving, racks or hooks you need to make the space work better. Be sure to make sure everything has a designated place in which it belongs.
  3. If your teen is content with his/her mess, the next step is to negotiate how to coexist. Acknowledge that keeping order is not high on their priority list, and then explain why it matters to you. You can say something like, “The way our home and its contents are cared for is as important to me as your problems are to you.” Express a desire to find a mutually acceptable solution. The key areas you to need to cover are:

=>The bedroom: I generally believe it is a good idea to let kids keep their rooms as they want on a daily basis, interspersed with a periodically required clean up. For example, you can agree that the teen will maintain a clear a path on the floor, and clean the other surfaces (dresser, desk, etc.) every other week by a certain time. In between, just close the door. And whatever you do, DON’T go in and rescue her if she can’t find something, or wants to wear a shirt that is dirty.  If your teen shares a room, set some actual, physical boundaries for what is “hers.” Consequences for breaking the deal should be agreed upon in advance, and should be customized for the teen. If your teen loves gaming, reduce gaming time for an unclean room. If you teen wants car access, then a violation means no keys for the weekend. Find something that matters!!

=> The bathroom: This is a tricky one, because bathrooms are small spaces. Begin by setting some “bare minimums”, such as the towel must be hung up (even if it is sloppily done), and personal care supplies returned to a certain space (corner of the counter, bucket, etc.) You may need to help the teen find space for her items so she can do this (e.g. install a hook for the hair dryer, buy an organizer for the make-up, etc). Once again, a consequence for breaking the rule should be established and agreed upon in advance. Try and be reasonable, keeping the daily expectations low.

=> The “public square”: This includes the places the whole family hangs out (e.g. kitchen, family room, mudroom). Here is where you can teach your teen to respect others. Go through each room and be specific about what you want. In addition, consider setting up a basket for each family member. If you find stuff lying around, just stick it in the individual’s basket. When the basket is full, he has to clean it out before taking part in an optional activity.

Do all you can to praise your teen whenever he makes an effort, especially in front of the family. If he fails, just carry through with the consequence without discussion. Don’t engage in debate because teens are very persuasive and persistent. If, after a little while, you are still having a problem, start the process all over again.

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Some days it may seem you teenager will never get it together, but know that many of the messiest teens turn it around when they go off to live in a tiny dorm or apartment.

What tips do you have for helping teens organize?

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