Your teen is disorganized. Their room is a mess. A muddled hodgepodge of clothes, trash, candy wrappers, and random knickknacks. Not to mention the leftover food, which is gross. And the laundry: what’s clean? What’s dirty? You have no idea. Neither do they, honestly. It’s so bad you can barely see the floor. Opening their closet is a feat reserved for the brave of heart and steadfast of spirit.
Everywhere they go, they leave a track of chaos in their wake. When they make their own lunch in the kitchen, it requires a full hour of cleaning up – by your, of course – after they’re done. And when they come home after being out, they toss their stuff casually, wherever, even though you probably told them a hundred thousand million times not to throw their things on the floor.
Although you’d never say this to them, here’s what you tell your friends:
My teen is a total slob.
I don’t know how they live like that. Their room is a disaster area, and they think cleaning up in the kitchen means shutting the refrigerator door.
How to Handle a Teen Who Won’t Clean Up
First, we need to offer this disclaimer: some untidiness is totally normal for teens.
Starting from the pre-teen years, most adolescents begin to assert their independence. Their room is their space to showcase their freedom. And if your teen leaves random possessions all over the house, this is yet another way of “claiming their territory” and asserting their presence, writes Dr. Carl Pickhardt, author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, published in
Keeping a clean room also requires planning and insight. These are functions of the prefrontal cortex – which is not fully formed until after age 20. That’s why, in addition to being impulsive and generally short-sighted, teenagers are often extremely disorganized.
There’s also just a practical aspect. Most adolescents are busy. They have class, homework, and tests. Most participate in extracurricular activities, at least during non-COVID times. And they’re often navigating complex – to them – social situations and making life decisions they never had to make before adolescence. For some teens, it’s a lot to handle. Most don’t place cleanliness high on their list of priorities. An exhausted teen will likely choose to fall asleep – or passively scroll through social media – rather than spend the time and energy it takes to put away laundry and bring their lunch dishes back to the kitchen.
These are the reasons Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Southern California Regional Program Director of Evolve Treatment Centers, advises most parents to simply ignore their teen’s mess. Parents need to pick their battles, she says. If a messy bedroom annoys you, close the door. Do your best to avoid looking at it. In the grand scheme of things, an untidy room is not a big deal.
Is It Really a Problem?
Some parents, though, find the mess impossible to ignore.
Sometimes the mess spills over into the hallway or the rest of the house. Other times, odors emanate from their bedroom. The chaos is so extreme that you can’t ignore it.
If that’s you, let’s backtrack. There’s a distinction between plain-old untidiness and problematic, unsanitary living conditions.
We want to reiterate that some messiness is normal in teens. But once the mess becomes unhygienic or problematic, parents should step in. When the room gets so bad that you actually worry it’s a health hazard, it might be time to take action.
Examples of health hazards:
- Damp, unwashed clothes can grow mold: yuck, and unhealthy.
- Dirty dishes and leftover food attract bugs: also yuck, and also unhealthy
Your teen also needs to respect the fact they live with others.
Examples of a lack of awareness of the effect of their habits on others:
- Odors so strong you smell them throughout the house.
- Hoarded items: the rest of you need silverware and drinking cups, too.
- Leaving personal items everywhere: they need to know you have better things to do than bringing their backpack, shoes, notebooks, comics, sweatshirts, soccer cleats, saxophone, pencils, markers, drawing pads, bike helmet, rollerblades, knee pads, weights, gaming devices, glitter bedazzling kit, and model airplanes back to their room.
These are all common examples of teen messiness that affect the rest of the home. And in some cases, they may also be red flags that your teen could be struggling with mental health issues.
When a Messy Room is a Sign of Mental Health Problems
Extreme messiness – with the emphasis on extreme – can be a sign of mental health issues. Excessively cluttered rooms can be a sign that a teen is developing depression, struggling with ADHD, or experiencing other emotional, psychological, or behavioral problems.
Messiness and Depression
If your teen is not bothered by the messy and chaotic state of their room, they may have developed depression. Depressed teens are often too fatigued – emotionally, mentally, and physically – to do anything, let alone clean their room. That’s why depression often results in withdrawal from others, academic problems, and a decline in personal hygiene, in addition to persistent sadness and low mood.
Adolescents who meet the clinical criteria for depression often lack the energy it takes to keep up with the common responsibilities of day-to-day life.
If your teen has a hard time showing up to class, completing homework, maintaining social commitments, showering, and yes, tidying up their room, it’s time to consider whether they could be depressed. Their messy room might actually be the result of depression and not laziness.
Other symptoms of depression include:
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in weight and/or appetite
- Slowness in movement and thinking
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Self-harming behavior/thoughts of suicide*
*If you think your child is in imminent danger of harming themselves, take action immediately. Call 911, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or take them to a hospital. Do not ignore talk of suicide.
Messiness and ADHD
Teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have very cluttered spaces. The primary reason is that ADHD makes it hard for teens to stay focused and on task. Adolescents with ADHD might want to clean their rooms, and might even start tackling the problem. But their ADHD – including distractibility and difficulty concentrating – gets in their way. This makes it hard for them to finish chores. Sometimes, if the task is too overwhelming, they might give up before they start. Teens with ADHD are often disorganized in other areas of their lives as well. For example, they may frequently lose personal items and forget about things.
Other symptoms of ADHD include:
- Frequent daydreaming
- Dislike of homework
- Lack of attention to detail (lots of careless mistakes)
- Difficulty following instructions
- Frequent procrastination
Other Mental Health Issues
If you don’t think your teen has clinical depression or ADHD, their messy room could be the result of other mental health issues. Extreme stress, low self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed, feeling a lack of control, feeling helplessness, and other forms of emotion dysregulation can all result in disorganization, disarray, and, in some cases, hoarding. Fact: hoarding is an actual disorder. Teens who find it very hard to throw away personal belongings may have developed a hoarding disorder.
Additionally, parents should keep in mind that teens who spend most of their time in messy rooms – and never clean up the mess – could be hiding things they don’t want parents to see, such as drugs or alcohol.
These teens may benefit from a full psychological assessment administered by a licensed mental health clinician. A mental health professional can determine if therapy or support can help them get their personal life and habits back on track. Whether it’s outpatient therapy, an intensive outpatient (IOP), or a partial hospitalization program (PHP), some level of support may help them learn how to deal with their emotions while optimizing their day-to-day functioning.
Why Is My Teen So Messy?
Parents often make the mistake of thinking their teens should just get up and do [X], with [X] being whatever parents tell them to do.
…just clean their room!
… just finish their homework!
…just get out of bed!
Notice the pattern?
Here’s why these phrases are so damaging to teens with new, existing, or developing mental health issues:
For teens with mental health or behavioral disorders, finding the energy to get up and complete these tasks can be downright impossible.
Or at the very least, not easy like parents think they should be.
To determine if your teen’s messiness could be due to depression, ADHD, or another emotional or mental health issue, we recommend talking to a licensed mental health clinician. Give them a detailed history of your teenager’s health history and make sure to mention the state of their hygiene and lack of tidiness.
My Teen Doesn’t Have Mental Health Issues But They’re Messy
If your teen has received an assessment that determined they do not have mental health issues, then you may just need some new parenting strategies, specifically designed for teens.
Below are some practical tips you can try to get teenagers to clean up after themselves.
How to Get Your Teen to Clean Up After Themselves
1. Be warm.
Demonstrating that you care about your teen, and you’re not trying to micromanage them, ensures you start off on a positive note.
2. Explain that you respect their privacy.
Tell your adolescent that you understand they’d like freedom. And you want to give them that independence—within a clear set of boundaries.
4. Avoid being emotional.
Try your best to simply state the facts. For example:
You have no clothes to wear because a) they’re stuffed together in the drawer/closet you can’t open, b) they’re all over the floor, c) no one has any clue where they are.
We now have ants all over the house the home because of the leftover food in your room.
You can’t find your phone because your room is so cluttered.
You stepped on your laptop and broke the screen because it was under the dirty clothes on the floor by your bed.
Do not yell these things. Say them in a calm, reasonable volume and neutral tone.
5. Start small.
Avoid rattling off a list of things your teen needs to do to clean up. Pick just one or two issues that are most pressing – for example, putting trash in the trash can and dirty dishes in the sink. Try your best to make an agreement with your teen to work on those issues. Your teen can get too overwhelmed if you ask them to do everything all at once.
5. State your expactations as simply and firmly as possible.
From now on, I’d like you to put trash in the trash can and dirty dishes in the sink. Thank you.
6. Incentive, outcomes, and consequences.
Come up with a natural consequence if your teen doesn’t change.
If you don’t consistently follow those two rules, I will have to bring a cleaner to decontaminate this room. The cleaner can’t distinguish between the things that are important to you and the things that are trash. You might lose important things or not know where they’ll be. The cleaners might also come when you’re not home so they can work quickly without disturbance.
Fear of this happening might inspire your teen to get their room tidy, or at the very least, put some of their possessions away.
Balance is Key
As mentioned earlier, some level of untidiness is normal in teens – and everyone, for that matter. While extreme messiness can be the result of depression or behavioral issues, extreme organization can be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Teens with OCD experience intense anxiety if anything in their room or their surroundings is out of place.
As with most issues relating to teenagers, the most important thing is to find a happy medium.