Arrgggh! Why is My Teen so Messy?

Clothes haphazardly scattered around the room. One sneaker under a sweaty shirt. Another hidden beneath the unmade bed. An almost-empty snack bag full of crumbs perched at the edge of the nightstand, precariously close to spilling. Last night’s wet towel on the bed. And random knickknacks strewn around the room: batteries, charger cables, dirty laundry, Gatorade bottles, papers, textbooks, hangers, sports equipment – you name it.

If this accurately describes your teen’s room, you’re not alone. Messy teen bedrooms have become the source of frustration to myriad parents. If you’re like most, the eyesore makes you uncomfortable. Walking past the room when the door is open makes you cringe. Whether it’s because cleanliness comes naturally to you, or you’re obsessive about order in the rest of your house, or you feel that your teen’s room reflects badly upon your parenting, the untidy room annoys you.

Constantly.

Of course, you’ve tried nagging, pleading, and encouraging your teen to clean up. None of it works.

If anything, it causes more conflict between you and your teen.

So what do you do?

Adolescent Messiness is Natural

Dr. Frances E. Jensen, a neurologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says teen messiness is quite common – and normal.

In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Jensen – author of a book called The Teenage Brain –states that “tidiness needs a sophisticated level of cognitive control, and the way the teenage brain is connected means that their planning is not very good.”

Since the process of brain myelination takes years to occur, an average adolescent brain is still under construction – just like a child’s brain. Most importantly, an adolescent brain lacks a fully formed frontal and prefrontal cortex – which manage insight and planning. This is why, for example, both risk taking and lack of organization are common during adolescence.

Dr. Jensen adds that being busy, as most teens are, means that cleanliness is not a very high priority on their to-do list. Teens today focus on school, grades, friends, social events, sports, homework, their identity, college, extracurricular activities – everything but keeping a tidy room.

“They have other things to worry about…they are messy because they don’t give themselves enough time to tidy up before they run off to do something else.”

What Do I Do About My Teen’s Messy Room?

Fine, you’re thinking.

So it’s biologically normal that my teen’s bedroom looks like a train wreck. But is there anything I can actually do to help improve the situation? Can I remove privileges until the room is neat? Offer rewards or bribes? Offer to clean it myself?

Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Clinical Program director at Evolve Treatment Centers for Teens in Agoura Hills, says no to all of these ideas. Her philosophy is just to ignore the mess.

“Never fight with your adolescent about the bedroom. Just close the door and never look at it,” she says.

Why?

Because parents need to pick their battles.

“In the grand scheme of things, a messy bedroom is really not a big deal. Why fight with your kid about it? Your teen, not you, is the one living with the consequences of the mess. When it gets too much for him, he’ll clean it up.”

When Teen Messiness Might Point To Mental Health Issues

However, teen messiness might, in certain occasions, be worth worrying about.

If your teen was always neat, and all of a sudden they don’t care about tidiness anymore, it might indicate a developing mental health issue. Or, if the messy room is combined with other suspicious changes like a decline in hygiene, falling grades, or substance use, then it’s time to consider seeking professional help.

All of these things – hygiene, grades, experimenting with alcohol or drugs – can point to a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), alcohol/substance use disorder (AUD/SUD), or other emotional/behavioral issues. A teen struggling with any of these conditions may need an intensive outpatient program (IOP), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or a residential treatment center (RTC). If your teen struggles with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, they need a dual diagnosis treatment center or drug rehab program that specializes in working with adolescents.