Is your teen’s bedroom a disaster area?

UW-Extension resource has tips for parents

Do you suspect that all your missing dishes are buried beneath the debris in your teen’s bedroom? Are you tempted to put a condemned sign on the door?

If this sounds like your child’s room, take heart—you are not alone! Dealing with messy rooms is an ongoing issue for many parents of teens according to Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with UW-Extension and professor in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology.

Small says that there are a variety of reasons why teens often have bedrooms that their parents would like to have condemned.

“Many teens view their bedrooms as their personal territory. They believe they have a right to control what goes on there,” Small says. “Adolescence is a time for teens to establish their independence from parents and assert themselves as unique, self-sufficient individuals who control their own lives.”

When parents try to control a teen’s personal space, it may make their child even more determined to push back. “Some teens view their messy rooms as a badge of honor—a relatively harmless but colorful way to assert their independence and irritate their parents,” says Small.

During the teen years, human brains undergo significant changes in the areas that are responsible for planning, making decisions and organizing. “It’s not unreasonable to think that some of these brain changes might have an effect on how teens organize and plan their lives and their spaces—including their bedrooms,” says Small.

Another reason teens might not clean their rooms is simply because it’s a low priority for them. With busy lives that include school, homework, friends, sports, clubs and more, spending time cleaning their bedroom might not seem worth the effort.

So what can frustrated parents do in response to a teen’s messy room? Small explains that there is no single response that will work for every family. Some parents may not be bothered and others might find the mess annoying and a challenge to their authority.

Small offers some suggestions for parents, whatever their feelings might be.

  • Recognize that messy rooms do, in part, serve a developmental purpose for teens. “Remind yourself that it’s not personal or a reflection on who you are as a parent,” he says.
  • Decide how much mess you can tolerate. For some families, the solution may be as simple as closing the door as long as the mess doesn’t spread any further. But if it really bothers you, says Small, it’s OK to set some rules. “Be aware that it will probably take some effort to stay on top of things and ensure that the rules are followed.”
  • Allow for natural consequences. Another option is simply to let your teen deal with the consequences of their actions. For example, dirty clothes that don’t get put in the hamper don’t get washed.
  • Consider lending a helping hand to reduce clutter and organize your child’s things. For some teens, the mess may seem overwhelming. Every so often, work together to get rid of old clothes and items your teen has outgrown. Buy some baskets and crates and show your child how to organize things that go together. Get a hamper for dirty clothes.

To learn more about issues affecting teens and preteens, consider joining the “Parenthetical” online community. “Parenthetical” features weekly articles about parenting topics based on research and the collected lessons and wisdom of parents. You can find this UW-Extension website for parents of tweens and teens at

Enter Parenthetical’s “Messy Room” contest

Send a picture of your teen’s messy room by February 15, 2015 and Parenthetical will post it on the website. The first 50 parents who submit a photo and sign up for the free Parenthetical newsletter will receive a free copy of a popular parenting book about teenagers. Send your photos to

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