What happened when I stopped asking my teenage son to tidy his room

It was overwhelming.
It was overwhelming. Photo: Shutterstock

When my son hit adolescence, his room became another landscape entirely. He went from Lego and Star Wars to dirty socks, decayed fruit and smelly football boots in what felt like the blink of an eye.

With this came the smell of unwashed clothes which now failed to make it into the family laundry hamper, well-worn sporting shoes scattered across the floor, school books haphazardly piled on the desk along with empty water cups and lolly wrappers. I began to retaliate, perturbed by the lack of concern for some safe floor space to walk upon, the smell of feet and worries about hygiene.

After weeks of politely asking him to clean up his room, cajoling, nudging, suggesting, being all easy-breezy about it, one day I just lost it. I unleashed my temper on him and that disgusting room and I scooped up most of his possessions and flung them into a garbage bag to be put out on the street. He was very upset and clearly didn't understand why I had reached breaking point at that moment and I was too mad for a heart-to-heart.

It set us on a destructive course. In the next few months there were many more arguments about the mess in his room and he dug in his heels the angrier I got.

It was war. I'd walk in, my critical eyes assessing the space and he would put on his virtual battle gear as I felt my temper rising.

His room was always in a terrible state and so was our relationship.

One day he walked in from school, went straight to his room and slammed the door without so much as an acknowledgement. It was a turning point - he had always said hi and checked in with me after school.

My anger dissolved and I saw my little boy, hurting and feeling alienated. It was time to find another way.

He emerged for dinner eventually, and I said we could have a little chat. I apologised for my anger and that it had gone on for that long and gave him a hug.

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I then said things had to change and watched his back stiffen in anticipation that I would order him to fall into line.

Instead, I proposed that one corner be cleaned up every few days - small areas of his room could be tidied over a week and that I wouldn't ask him again until it needed it.

I pointed to a sad and sorry spot piled with random items and said, "Start there. Tidy that one corner now and in two days' time do that corner over there. Two days after that, do your desk."

He nodded and smiled, visibly relieved. Each of the small areas took him a short time to complete and by the end of that week the room was in an acceptable state. 

The room had been too overwhelming for him as a whole. To break it up into small parts and not demand perfection either, was a strategy that worked for both of us.

What's more, the room was acceptable for most of the next two weeks. After that I pointed to a corner and said, "You know what to do."

His room is no showpiece and neither of us care. Our relationship is peaceful and loving again, despite the particular challenges of raising a teenager and being one.

It took some understanding on my part, remembering my own teen years of being fine with mess. There are so many more important things in life than a perfectly tidy bedroom, and nothing more so than our mother-son bond.