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Parents and the Importance of the Adolescent Bedroom

Personal family living space matters more to the teenager than to the child

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

It’s one of the surer signs that your daughter or son has entered adolescence: the young person’s bedroom becomes increasingly emblematic of youthful determination to live more on her or his own terms.

  • · Parental presence in her or his bedroom is less welcome than before as if it were now posted: No Adults Allowed.
  • · The bedroom door that mostly was left open in childhood now becomes the door that is more often closed.
  • · The child who liked being out and about the home with family now prefers more time sequestered and alone.
  • · The child who treated the bedroom as a storage place for playthings now turns it into a gallery to exhibit changing expressions of an adolescent state of mind.
  • · The child who understood that she or he only occupied this corner of the family home now acts like she or he now owns the space.

I think it’s best to clarify parental expectations about adolescent room use sooner than later. The longer you wait to define them, the harder doing so may become. Early adolescence (ages 9 – 13) is the time to have "the talk.” I don’t mean about sex or drugs, but about expectations for managing the growing power of the bedroom in your adolescent’s personal life and your family life.

One way to do so is to clarify to what to degree you subscribe to Common Room Rights an adolescent might claim in the name of growing social independence ("I should decide how to manage my personal space"), in the name of more expressive individuality ("Like how I dress, my room shows who I am,") and in the name of increasing personal privacy ("My business is nobody's business but mine.")

Ten of these possible self-determined “rights” are listed below.

  • · The state of order I choose to keep my room in is up to me.
  • · Keeping my door closed to keep others out is up to me.
  • · What I keep in my room is up to me.
  • · What I do in my room is up to me.
  • · How I decorate my room is up to me.
  • · How loud I play music in my room is up to me.
  • · Who is allowed into my room is up to me.
  • · Food and dishes I leave in my room are up to me.
  • · When I come out of my room is up to me.
  • · Who and how I entertain in my room is up to me.

If you have a problem with any such self-assumed “rights,” then up front declare what you believe are reasonable and healthy family expectations instead. Just remember that in doing so you will be bumping up against the two fundamental drives that propel adolescent growth: detachment from childhood and family to assert more freedom of action; and differentiation from childhood and family to develop a more uniquely fitting identity.

An adolescent bedroom is a power place in both regards. Parents vary in how much of this power will be allowed – from the disregarding who prefer to look the other way to the demanding who daily check on bedroom maintenance.

One way for parents to think about the appearance of the adolescent’s bedroom is as a changing gallery of what matters at an age of passionate identifications and attachments, and changing interests. These can be communicated in a variety of extremely telling ways. On the walls, for example, parents can see images and icons that have a lot to say about the person posting that warrants parents attending to, just like favorite youthful music that is worth their listening to.

Sometimes the extreme expressions communicated can put parents off, but adolescent redefinition is not drawn to moderation or compromise the way adults often are. “All or nothing” statements have more dramatically redefining power than settling for “some” as adults have grown accustomed to do. Often it’s best for parents to keep in mind that these expressions, interests, and identifications are more of a trial than a terminal nature. They serve the cause of growing up more than reflecting how the young person will “turn out” once grown up. So it is usually better to take an interest rather than to act alarmed.

When might parents want to exercise some influences over the degree of disorder in which the teenager's rooms casually kept? Consider three possibilities.

  1. If you have a young person who suffers from disorganization and distractibility, adding confusion to an already more confusing age, it can be wise for parents to regularly help the young person keep her or his personal space in a simple and orderly state. "It's one part of my life where I can count on knowing where everything is, and I can feel more in control."
  2. If you have a young person whose life may be becoming more unmanageable but you don't know why an extremely messy room may be exploited to keep parents out. The disorder is intended to protect something secret that if discovered would reveal what is forbidden, incriminating, endangering, or otherwise compromising. "We went searching among the debris, and this is what we found."
  3. If you have an extremely rebellious young person for who a chaotic room is symbolically meant to communicate the determination to live home on her or his anarchic terms, it can be wise to go for a two-way accommodation. "Here's the deal: on one weekend day each week we will keep after you to put your room into sufficient order to suit our household needs: then we'll leave you mostly alone about the order you like to keep the next six days."

Of course, parents keeping after the adolescent about the state of her bedroom has both specific and symbolic power: "Keeping after my personal space just shows my parents are determined to oversee how I run my larger life."

As for many teenagers, an honest sign of changing times affixed to the outside of their door might read: “ROOM TO GROW – Please do not disturb.” Or keep in mind one adolescent's explanation of the importance of this personal space: "My room is my home at home."

Finally, it's well for parents to keep in mind how the older adolescent's bedroom can have some lasting importance after she or he leaves home for apartment sharing and a job, for the military, or for college, for example. Why?

The answer is because the young person needs the vacant room kept empty as a placeholder that marks membership in the family while transitioning away from home. "Just because I'm not living there now doesn't mean that I no longer want a place to belong."

Two needs are at issue for the departed adolescent. First, the bedroom is kept as a welcoming space for a family visit. "It feels good being back among my old things for a while." And second, the bedroom provides a place of security should the young person lose their independent footing and need to return home for a while to recover before trying independence once again. "I need some time back home to figure out what happened and what to do next."

So, my advice: after your teenager moves out and on, leave the empty bedroom as is for a couple of years before repurposing it for another family use.

Next week’s entry: Easing the impact of parental divorce on their adolescents