Room Rights in Adolescence

When disagreeing about room-care, respect the importance of the teenage room

Posted May 26, 2015

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

"I promise: you'll never catch me doing drugs."

Responses from readers often challenge me to rethink what I have written before. A case in point is a well-stated response to a blog I wrote a number of years ago about “Adolescence and The Messy Room” (3/22/2009). The young person took me to task on the issue of parental oversight which he thought I stated too strongly, and perhaps I did. In any case, what follow are some further thoughts about what is a very common source of disagreements to be negotiated between parents and teenager.

The teenager bedroom fulfills many important personal functions. It is partly a self-entertainment center, partly a rest and recovery chamber, partly a statement of self-expression, partly a space to call one’s own, partly a place to keep personal belongings, partly a place to be left alone, partly a place to keep siblings out, partly a place to invite friends in, and partly a staging area for getting ready to enter the world.

Parents are often complicit in some problems about the teenage room they often complain about. Having outfitted the teenager’s room so it has become a complete electronic entertainment center, parents may find themselves making these kinds of statements:

“He doesn’t get his homework done.”

“She never comes out to join the family.”

“He’s always overtired from lack of sleep.”

“The blast of music she listens to deafens the entire home!”

“When friends are over, he shuts the door and they play online.”

“In his room, we don’t know where in the world she goes on the Internet.”

In the parent’s generation, it used to be that when an adolescent was at home, parents knew where she or he was, so there were no worries. But in this technological age, when the adolescent is at home, parents often have no idea who their adolescent is talking to, what they are doing, or where they are traveling—at least, in the infinite, virtual world. 

Now consider four "room right" issues that often come into play: the right to personal sanctuary, the right to territorial control, the right to privacy, and the right to self-expression.

The right to personal sanctuary: The teenage bedroom can become a secluded place to unwind from the unrelenting demands of school, outside activities, and social life. At times, most adolescents feel beset by an overwhelming amount of public exposure and social complexity from which the simple sanctuary of a personal space can offer immense, albeit temporary, feelings of relief. In addition, knocking on a closed teenage door for permission to come in is usually a courtesy that is appreciated because it shows respect. Parents can become concerned, however, when a space for renewal become an escape or a place for hiding out.

The right to territorial control: Should the teenage room fit in with and conform to parental tastes and needs for cleanliness and order in the larger living space? The conflict between “Well, it’s my room!” and “Well, it’s our home!” can be an ongoing tension. Then there are parents who give up and say, “Just keep your door closed so we don’t have to see that mess!” This decision risks allowing the mess the keep them out, and liberates the adolescent to do and keep in their room anything they like without parental oversight, maybe to the good, but maybe not. Parents often want sufficient consistency of upkeep to signify that order of the teenage room meets minimal standards that govern the larger family space. 

The right to privacy: Privacy is always about freedom—to keep certain parts of life unobserved, off-limits, or secret. So the teenager may want a right to privacy when it comes to activities like self-inspecting, getting dressed, having confidential phone conversations with friends, keeping personal posessions, and taking time to oneself. Also, degree of privacy is linked to degree of independence. “What I do and keep in my room is my private business!” When adolescent safety or wellbeing is at stake, parents may sometimes disagree.

The right to self-expression: How a teenager decorates their room—like how they dress—portrays interests they have, values they hold, and images they like: a window into their changing minds as that young person grows. Even when occasionally offensive, what is personally expressive for the adolescent can be very informative to parents, and they might want to appreciate how, through room design and clutter, the young person is sharing something about themselves. After all, how would parents feel if their teenager elected to live in a room with blank, undecorated walls, unfurnished with significant belongings, no knick-knacks of any kinds, just a closet, set of drawers, and a bed, a bare cell with no adornments at all? Many parents would find a no-data room such as this more disturbing than reassuring. 

When it comes to how the adolescent room is kept and used, I think the best advice is what this young reader, who took me to task, suggested: “Parents should actively seek to discuss with their children how best to manage their room. As long as there are channels of communication between the child and the parent, the room should be left to the care of the child.”

Active dialogue and some degree of mutual accommodation is the answer.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “Surving Your Child's Adolescence,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: What Adolescents Can Learn from Parental Conflict