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The Messy Room: Symbol of the Adolescent Age

The messy room is a small problem with big implications.

In many ways, the "messy room" is emblematic of the adolescent age. Usually beginning in early adolescence (years 9 - 13) as a function of personal disorganization brought on by more growth change than the young person can easily manage, this state of internal confusion and external disarray quickly attracts parental attention.

So to begin with, parents need to understand that early adolescents are honorably disorganized. Their life in childhood has begun to fall apart. They can never go "home" again. And they don't know where they grow from here.

However, to parents (even more to step-parents), the messy room can feel like an affront to domestic order, representing "disrespect" for the more neatly kept home they value. Their expression of disapproval in response usually becomes an affront to the adolescent who sees a power issue worth fighting for. The messy room represents "personal freedom" to live on his or her own terms.

Thus a specific disagreement over order becomes a symbolic struggle over who's in control. "It's my room! " declares the adolescent. "I should be free to live in it any way I want!" "Wrong," counter the parents. "It's our home, and you will live according to the standards of household order that we set!" So the battle lines are drawn for a conflict of mess up vs. clean up that can unfold over many years.

For the adolescent, there can be a lot at stake in asserting the right to the messy room — issues about independence, individuality, and opposition to parental rules. As a statement of independence, the child seems to say: "I should be able to live in my own space in my own way!" As a statement of individuality, the child seems to say: "I am now a different person than I was as a child!" As a statement of opposition, the child seems to say: "I'm going to live MY way, not your way!"

So, do you want to let the messy room go? Do you want to just accept it as an anarchic byproduct of this more assertive and rebellious age? Or do you want to make a supervisory response instead? Parents who let the matter go tend to do so to their cost. They adjust to what they don't like and then blame the adolescent for their unhappiness. Better to hold themselves responsible for not adequately supervising what matters to them.

If you want your child to do the maintenance work to keep his or her room picked up, you are going to have to do the supervisory work to get that cleaning up to happen. This supervision not only has a specific objective, but it also has a larger message to convey. By insisting on regular room clean up, you let it be known that your child must live on your terms so long as he or she is dependent on your care. She can live on independent terms when she is out on her own.

Why is the matter of the messy room so important to you? Because a "trashed" room causes you to feel your home is being trashed and, since your home is an extension of yourself, you are feeling trashed as well. Further, because you work to keep a home and keep it up, you feel the work you do to create a home is being devalued. The messy room is a good example of why "Don't sweat the small stuff" is bad advice when it comes to supervision.

Remember, if your child knows you will keep after the small responsibilities, like cleaning up a messy room, he or she also knows this shows you will be keeping after big stuff like obedience to major rules. So cleaning up the messy room is, in fact, an issue to keep fighting for.

However, now your child has a suggestion. "Just close the door and keep out and the mess won't bother you." Don't accept this self-serving offer. If you allow the child's mess to keep you and your supervision out, your child may start keeping things in the room, and conducting activities in the room that you do not want in your home or in the child's life.

At the age of awakening curiosity about the grown-up world, such freedom can be abused — as a license to explore and experiment with the forbidden. This is why some parents have an "open door" policy for their adolescent when friends come over: "Keep your bedroom door open when you have a friend over to visit or play."

As for your child's statement, "This is my room and you can't come in without my permission," your answer needs to be "Yes" and "No." Yes, you should knock before entering if the door is closed. Yes, you should allow the room to reflect the changing identity of your growing child (decoration within your tolerance for acceptable expression.) And yes, you should value this decoration as a window into understanding your child's changing interests and identifications as he or she continues to grow.

This said, you also have to state conditions under which you will say "No" to the right of privacy. As with freedom on the Internet, so with freedom of personal space. Privacy remains a privilege, not a right. So long as that freedom is exercised within the limits of mutually agreed upon responsibility, you will respect that right. Use privacy to conceal what is forbidden, however, and that privilege is lost because personal freedom is being abused.

Now another right comes into play, and it is your right of search and seizure if you are being denied adequate information for understanding what is going wrong in your teenager's life and why. For example: inexplicably, grades are down because homework is not kept up. You are being told lies instead of truth. There have been instances of sneaking out. Strange phone calls come in for your son or daughter where the callers refuse to identify themselves. Your teenager's physical appearance looks more tired, her mood is sullen, and she acts withdrawn. What's going on? Your teenager won't say.

So in search of explanation, you go through your child's room only to discover notes, letters, and a diary outlining a double life you never suspected, the second life posing substantial danger to your child's welfare. A check of her Internet activity confirms your worst fears.

The only thing you can't understand is why your teenager left incriminating evidence to be so easily found. The answer usually is that she was desperate to be found out, but lacked courage to tell you directly. Many young people who are caught in continual wrongdoing, who are taking more freedom than feels safe, are glad to be caught because now they can get parental help getting their lives back in constructive control again.

Two other points to keep in mind about the messy room.

First, unless you contain the messy room with supervision and police the rest of your home, the mess will spill out into other rooms. Teenagers are extremely territorial. They leave belongings out and litter the place to mark and claim a larger presence in the family. This shows how they are growing older and bolder. By insisting on cleaning up and maintaining order, parents are reducing the adolescent presence to a healthy and tolerable size.

And second, one special reason to keep after the messy room is when your son or daughter is by nature extremely disorganized and highly distractible. Children and adolescents of this type can easily feel "out of control" in their lives, having a hard time focusing, staying on task, and remembering what they need to take care of.

It's hard for the teenager to concentrate when his surroundings are in a state of disarray. His room is an expression of his world. Use your supervision to help him continually bring order to that world and to simplify how personal space is kept, and you will help him feel more "in control," more able to keep the rest of his life effectively organized.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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