My Kid’s Room Is a Hot Mess. What Should I Do?
Should you be concerned if your child has a messy, disorganized room? A mom emails asking for advice on how to handle a kid's room that feels out of control. Dr. Lisa introduces us to the term executive functioning, the mental processes that help with managing oneself and one's possessions. Reena asks if being disorganized as a child can lead to problems down the line. Lisa offers guidance on when it's time to step in and how to help your children organize themselves and their things.
May 18, 2021 | 25 min
Transcript | My Kid’s Room Is a Hot Mess. What Should I Do?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 40: My Kid’s Room is a Hot Mess. What Should I do?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I’m looking around my office and I can see he’s stacks of papers, manila folders thrown all over, books, and I see your beautiful tidy office and I’m wondering what did I do wrong as a child to not understand organization?
LISA: Oh, Reena, you know it’s so funny. For me I can’t think if it’s not tidy. Like that’s the only way I can think, but I also know there are lots of brilliant people, you among them, who operate fine with what looks like chaos to me, and so, you know, my attitude is like in adulthood, and also in parenting, there are a lot of ways to get it right.
REENA: I need Marie Kondo on speed dial. Is she still on maternity leave? I need her back. You know we got this letter from this mom who talks about her kid’s messy room. That’s kind of what got us thinking about this. It says: ‘Hi, Dr. Lisa, I need your help with a challenge I’m facing with my teenage daughter. Her room is a hot mess. You can’t even go in there without walking on top of stuff. She’s a fantastic, beautiful kid who has major problems with organization. I’d appreciate any thoughts on how to help her start developing new behaviors because the way she keeps her room drives me absolutely crazy. Thank you in advance for your consideration on this.’ Yeah. A lot of parents can identify with this, right?
LISA: This mom is not alone. There’s no question about it. This is something that a lot of families struggle with, about how their kids keep their rooms.
REENA: And they’re not bothered by it. That’s the thing, they’re really not bothered by it.
LISA: No. No.
REENA: Where do you start?
LISA: Well, so, where you start, for me, is there’s messes and there’s messes. So, for me, and I would say this both personally and professionally, and this, for me, actually gets to a very personal place, like I really like things tidy, so I feel very empathic to parents who have a hard time with their kids’ messy rooms. There are certain bright lines that messy rooms cannot cross, and I think should not cross. So, for example, is there food in there? You know, is there food that is going bad or could bring in a vermin your way? That, to me, feels like a non negotiable, right? Like there’s no way that that should be happening. It’s gross. It’s, you know, not fair to anyone, so that’s a place where I think parents should really, you know, say, this is not on the options of ways you can keep your room. I think another bright line, I’m trying to walk them back from severity, so food, gross. Stuff like that just totally weirds me out as a parent, you know, and I think as a psychologist is not okay.
LISA: Then if they’re not being respectful of their stuff. I mean I think one thing that’s really hard for parents, and I get this, is maybe they bought their kid a dress or jacket that the kid really wanted and maybe was expensive, and then they go in the room and the thing is like jammed under a chair, you know, and that that, for the parent, feels uneasy and uncomfortable and they don’t like that, and I think there’s room there to say, loo, you know, you want nice things. We want to be able to give you nice things, but if you’re going to treat them like that, we’re not so inclined. So when you start taking better care of your stuff, like we can go back to these, you know, questions about whether or not there’s like these extra nice things to have. The place where I think you start to get into a bit of a negotiation but where the messy room still feels like a problem is when they can’t find stuff. You know how that happens, Reena, in parenting? Where you have a kid, the room’s kind of chaotic, and they’re supposed to be rushing out the door and they can’t find things, and you’re like, I know it’s there, and if you didn’t keep your room this way we wouldn’t be having this crisis now.
REENA: Right. What is it, though? You know one child is organized, nice and tidy, the other child is just a hot mess, stuff strewn all over the place. Is laziness? Like why is it that one is organizing the other one isn’t? Is there other reasons about this?
LISA: Yeah, I mean there probably are. So, you know, some of it is inclination. Some of it is just temperament. Like, you know, some kids just like a tidy, some kids really don’t care. There are also, what we get into here is the question of executive functioning. So, executive functioning is the term we use in psychology for basically the operating system of the brain and how well it keeps a child organized in their lives, and this is knowing where they’re supposed to be, what they’re supposed to have with them, you know, it’s overall organization in a way, and it’s also motivation and other things. The bottom line when it comes to rooms, there are are some kids who are still struggling with executive functioning, which is basically knowing what’s supposed to be where and where they’re supposed to be and those kinds of things, and there are also kids who just are very strong on executive functioning, so they’re able to keep themselves organized. So, it sometimes happens that you have a kid who struggles with executive functioning, and their room either quickly or gradually becomes a huge mass, a hot mess, I love that that’s what this mom called it, and that parent is like, whoa, you have to clean that up, right? Like it just feels like it’s crossed a line, and here, to me, is a really interesting moment in parenting. The kid doesn’t even know where to start. Like they have dug themselves a hole that they do not have the executive functioning to get out of, and so that, to me, is a moment where we have to be fair to the kid about what they can reasonably do, and so if this is your kid where you’re like, my kid has got stuff scattered all over. That’s kind of how they operate, they’re a little bit scattered. If their room crosses that line, and you said to them like, you’ve got to fix this. It is only fair, I think in those moments, to say, I will help you dig yourself out.
LISA: Because we are asking them to do something they cannot do.
REENA: How do you know that they cannot do it? Is there an age? How do you break this down? Like sometimes I’ll say, okay it is so overwhelming, the playroom is so bad. Take 15 minutes, I’m setting a timer, go clean up what you can, and it’s usually a very small dent of what ends up getting done, but it’s something.
LISA: That’s brilliant, Reena, I mean that’s a really good idea because if the kid’s overwhelmed and is like, I don’t even know where to start and you say, look, just do 15 minutes, just start on that corner. That’s a good thing and actually, you know, if your kid can do that, if your kid can actually mobilize for that 15 minutes and even focus on one corner, it’s, you know, starting to get them into it, but it also, what you’re doing is you’re actually cultivating your kids’ executive functioning skills. You’re sayin, like use this interval of time, start over in that corner, and you’re helping them build it. So, if your kid can do that, then I think let them keep at it, you know, help them to maybe take a break and then go back at it, at another corner, another 15 minutes. If your kid is like a deer in headlights, absolute deer in headlights, that’s where our instinct in the moment is often to get more angry, frustrated.
REENA: Yes. Tell me about it.
LISA: But I think that’s what you might say, all right buddy, let’s just start with this. Here’s a trash bag. Show me what’s trash, or let me pick up each item and you say, trash or not trash, you know, that that kind of helping them create the beginning of an organizational system. This is also where baskets and cubbies, you know, things like that come in, where you say, okay see this basket? This is the Lego basket, like all the Legos go in this basket and so go find me all the legos. So, it may be that level of structure the kids need, and then what I would say is if you’ve got a kid who is still developing on the executive functioning side, really cannot manage, maintain and organize themselves yet, don’t let it get too far out of control. Like set a weekly time, you know, every Thursday night we’re going to put your room back together and and do have categories and systems and ways to help them think about doing that, but as hard as it is and as frustrating as it is, and as much as you’re like, how come, kiddo, you can’t do this if your brother can do this? How come you can’t do this? You know every kid’s different, and so if we go at it from this idea of, all right, you need more coaching on keeping things under control in your room, and then you just set up that coaching time once a week, or you know if people have cleaning services, you know, that can be a good, you know, the cleaning folks are coming. and so you know every week or every other week, you know, that’s the time when we go through your room and put it back together so that they can actually find your floor.
REENA: So, what if you’re a parent like me who admits I may be suffering from understanding executive functioning and keeping things nice and tidy. What could we do to help if the parent isn’t type A and super organized and nice and tidy.
LISA: Well, so, the good news is you probably have a higher tolerance for it.
REENA Right. That’s probably not good news.
LISA: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, you know, you’re not going to mind your apple so much, right? Because you have a higher tolerance for what I call chaos and so their chaos may not bother you, and I will say, Reena, I will say, and I’ll come back to your question, being a parent is the best thing that ever happened to my personality, like there’s no question because I do like things tight and I do like things locked down and I do like things organized, and that’s not raising kids. That’s not what raising kids looks like, and it’s interesting because I started practicing before I had kids and I’ve taken care of families who have teenagers for a long time, and even before I had kids I had so many parents in my office who would be like, oh my god it went so fast. Oh my god it went so fast, and that really shaped my parenting because we have a mud room,
REENA: Oh don’t tell me about the mud room. I just can’t.
LISA: I know I love the mud room, but it can also be a disaster, right? But I’ll walk in there and they’ll be like shoes everywhere and I my instinct is like, ahhh, and then I said to myself. This is going to solve itself very quickly. These shoes will be gone one day and I will miss them. I’m not going to throw down about this, and so being a mom has done more to expand my flexibility and tolerance for living with other people, bascially is what it is. So, I’ve probably gotten closer to where good moms like you are, good parents like you are, in being able to tolerate a higher level of it. So, that’s a place to start, but if you’re worried that this is having a downstream effect on your kids that you’re concerned about, right? That you’re raising disorganized kids.
LISA: Well then what I would wonder is okay, look at where the rubber hits the road. Do they know where their stuff is when it’s time for them to find their stuff? Are they taking decent care of the things that you think they need to take good care of, right? I mean that are valuable or worthwhile or that matter to you they treat, you know, well. Are they, you know, is it not gross? And if you say yes to all of those things then I would say you’ve got to decide if it’s worth it to lean on your kid.
REENA: If they learn it early on does it help in other ways? Like if you drill this? Is this one of the things you need to drill into your child and then it will have wonderful lifelong implications? Like how far do you need to press on this?
LISA: It’s a good question, right? Because this is also something that has a real developmental arc. So, you can lean on your younger kid, right? You can actually say to a 10-year-old, your room’s a mess, you’ve got to clean it up, you’ve got to make this happen, and they will capitulate to that. Ten-year-olds will go for that. You might decide it’s worth it to you to push on your kid to do that. Maybe they’re not checking those boxes, maybe it is gross, maybe they can’t find their stuff, maybe they are not treating things well. What we want to be really mindful of, Reena, is the whole deal changes when your kid turns 11, 12 or 13. That whatever you could do with muscle early on in parenting, like, I’m telling you to do this, you’re not doing it, now I’m getting mad that you’re not doing it. Like you can get a lot done like that with kids who are pre-adolescent. The thing that gets really tricky, Reena, is as soon as your kid you know enters adolescence, which you know somewhere around 11, 12, 13 at the latest, overnight your leverage changes. Overnight if you say to them, do this, they’re like, well I was going to do it, now I don’t want to, and the like, now I’m mad, and they’re like well now you’re mad now I definitely don’t want to. I mean like you lose all of that traction, and you could find yourself, even if you feel like you’ve laid all this terrific ground work around staying organized and being organized, you could find yourself in a really ugly power struggle with the teenager who feels like, it’s my room. I want to keep it the way I want to keep it.
REENA: I just don’t know when you need to push, but you’re right, I don’t allow food and shoes. That’s not allowed in the rooms.
LISA: That’s interesting.
REENA: No food, no shoes upstairs. But what if you have a teen who just doesn’t agree with these rules? What do you do then?
LISA: Right, okay so let’s say you’re in this power struggle, where the teen is like, you know what? It’s my room, and you’re like, yeah but it’s my house, and so here you are like going toe to toe, right? So this to me is a really interesting fight to have with the teenager, and when I think about this I kind of zoom out on it and what I think about is it is teenagers’ jobs to rub parents the wrong way. It is the nature of normal and healthy development in adolescence to do things that your parents find annoying, and their is often, I would actually say, it’s the most common thing I hear about from parents in terms of how the teenager makes them bananas, and so here’s how I think about it, Reena, there are two categories of how teenagers can rub their parents the wrong way. There are things teenagers can do that really, really bother us, but probably won’t have any implications when they’re 30. So their room is in there, it might be like wearing, you know, really weird nail polish, or it may be, you know, listening to music we can’t stand or it might be, you know, getting into disagreements every time it’s time to go to church, you know, it might be like things like that where there’s a lot of friction, but you don’t really think this is going to harm them at 30, right? It’s low harm. And then there are things that teenagers can do that upset parents that could have real lasting implications. So, it’s things like you know being out of control around drinking or messing around with drugs or, you know, driving in ways that are scary, or refusing to do school work, you know, there could be things, and so I think in these two very clean categories. Matters when they’re 30, doesn’t matter when the 30, and for me every normal healthy developing teenager does something in the probably won’t matter when I’m 30 category that they know is going to push their parents’ buttons. I will tell you what I did. This seems so small but whatever. So to push my mother’s buttons, my mother’s an extraordinary cook and I grew up in Colorado in the southwest, and I decided, as a teenager, that I hated cilantro. Cilantro’s a very polarizing herb.
REENA: I love cilantro. How can you not like cilantro?
LISA: And, Reena, I do. I actually do, but somehow I decided, as a teenager, that I couldn’t stand cilantro, and, you know, you can detect cilantro in the smallest quantities, right?
LISA: And so I went through this whole phase of adolescence of like, absolutely refusing anything that had cilantro in it, which my mother cooks cilantro a lot, and like this was the thing I did that was super annoying. I mean I’m sure I did other annoying things, but it was really designed to I think be annoying to my mother in that way that as an adolescent you need to be. That will not matter when I was 30. Would not matter when I was 30. So, in my experience kids start in that category. They do things like you tell them to rinse all the orange pulp out of glasses before you put it in the dishwasher, and they keep not doing it, right? You don’t clean up the room, they keep doing it. You tell them, eat this dish anyway, they refuse it because it has a cilantro, right? I mean like all of these things. I think if parents react to that category, if parents are willing to push back a little bit, maybe not on everything but some of it, it keeps kids out of the second category often. That kids are looking for friction with their parents, and we want to give it to them.
LISA: Yeah. Here’s what happens, Reena, here’s what happens. If the kid’s room is a huge mess and nobody says anything, if the kid is super annoying about, you know, food refusal or, you know, quirky habits, and everybody just makes room for it, if you keep saying, rise out the orange pulp out of the glasses before you put them in the dishwasher, and the kid doesn’t do it, and you just stop asking yeah, they’re like, whoa okay, so well what does it take to get a grown up around here to act like a grown up? Maybe I’ll push it a little bit. Maybe I’ll be smoking weed in my room and see if you start to notice, right? So, here’s how we want to think about it. Even if you’re not winning, even if your kid is not doing what you ask in terms of keeping their adolescent room the way you want them to, stay in that space with them with some friction. Keep saying to them, you know what? Minimally you cannot have any food in there. Minimally you cannot mistreat your stuff. Minimally, like if you’re losing your stuff like you’re creating problems for yourself and I hate watching you be frantic. Keep asking. Keep saying, you know what? It makes me bananas, where can we negotiate? It makes me bananas, could you at least not have stuff on the floor? Keep staying in that space of pushing on how they keep their room even if you’re losing, and the way we should think about this is give them some friction around something that’s pretty low stakes. Reassure yourself constantly that this kid’s going to move out. This problem’s going to solve itself one day or another no matter what you do, and in the meantime if you can hold that for chin around the small stakes stuff , really think most of the time it keeps them out of the bigger stakes stuff.
REENA: Wow. I did not know that having that friction could actually be beneficial when dealing with teens.
LISA: It can. They need the friction. Give them the friction on the small stuff.
REENA: Wow. So my takeaways today are if your kid is just really overwhelmed, might not have the what you call executive functioning yet, you need to step in and help them figure out a system of what goes where, so they can identify how to put things away.
REENA: And give kids a friction sometimes. Keep pushing back even if it’s not fun and it’s not pleasant.
LISA: Those are exactly right. You know, have your bright lines, help a kid who can’t even begin to figure out how to clean up a room, expect friction with your teenager. If they’re going to give it to you around their room, take it there, and then what I would say is if you’re like me, if you are someone who left to their own devices keeps things inordinately tidy, be open to the idea that your kids can help you grow and getting comfortable with a higher level, and I have to use the word chaos, a higher level of chaos than you’re used to, though I don’t think the word chaos is probably fair, can actually be a way in which you expand your own personality, and we don’t talk enough about how being a parent can, in fact, help us find new sides of ourselves, help us to be better, help us to be more flexible and relaxed, and yet I think a lot of parents have that experience, you know, that once kids come into your life, you don’t have the say you used to have, and if you can lean into that experience, it can make it actually much more pleasant for everybody involved and rooms can be a place where that happens.
REENA: Which reminds me I don’t like mud in my mud room. I like the floors nicely swept. It’s one of my pet peeves, and the neighborhood kids all come now, it’s a joyous thing, you know, everyone is is you know able to come in and be with us, and I was saying to them once, guys you’re dragging in all the mud, and one of them turns to me and says, well you know it’s a mud room. It’s like okay fair point, fair point, I’ll let it go, but these little things during the pandemic that I did miss. So, the other takeaway is if your kid doesn’t like cilantro, give them a double dose.
LISA: Double dose. I love it, I cook with it all the time and it does crack me up because with my mom being the cook she was, like that was the button I could really push on my mom.
REENA: I love it. Please tell me you have a book to help us get to the next level on this.
LISA: I have a wonderful book. This is a classic. This book has been around for years, and it is really, Reena, it’s one of the best books out there for parenting. It’s called “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk.”
LISA: And it’s by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and it’s just, I mean it’s just one of those things every parent should have on their shelves. So, we’ll give away a copy. The way to enter is to follow us on Instagram or Facebook or LinkedIn. Put your name in the comments. You can enter as many times as you like. This is for folks in the U.S. only and then we’ll pick a winner and get it out to you.
REENA: That’s great. And what’s your parenting to go, Lisa.
LISA: It’s important for parents to be predictable more than it’s important for them to be consistent. So, what I mean by that is what you said about the mud room, that you like the nud room to have no mud in it. Your kids know that about you. Now is this consistent with the rest of what you do? That there’s other places it sounds like where you’re quite a bit more flexible about what I would call messes, not necessarily, right? It actually, in fact, seems strange that you’re picky about the mud room but not so much about other places. For kids, this is not a problem. They know how you operate. If there’s mud in the mud room, you’re going to get upset. If there’s papers over there, you won’t. What kids need to know is how we’re going to react and they can work around that. What’s hardest on kids is if the parent is unpredictable. If sometimes they’re upset about mud in the mud room, and sometimes they are not. So, parents don’t have to worry that everything has to line up, that their rules have to look consistent across the board. Your kid just needs to know that they can predict how you’re going to react to things and then they will operate accordingly.
REENA: Great advice. Great advice. Thank you. I’ll see you next week?
LISA: See you next week.