Why your teen's bedroom is so untidy... by a 17 year old

Couldn't get your teen to tidy their messy bedroom over the holidays and can't comprehend why they won't keep it neat? We asked a teen to explain...

Children's bedroom
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Is your teen's bedroom driving you nuts? Does no amount of nagging change their habits? We feel your pain... and asked our resident teen to explain JUST WHAT'S GOING ON IN THEIR HEADS.

Sorry, deep breath. Here, Lola Houlton, a 17 year old Psychology student reveals all... (Warning: you may feel calmer after you've read this.)

Pssst! These small bedroom ideas might encourage them to tidy up, too. 

'As a 17 year old with a messy bedroom, which both I and anyone who sees it would agree, is the definition of "mess", I would like to start by saying that while I fit the stereotype of a lazy and messy teen (what I’m calling the ‘pig sty’ effect), many of my friends have immaculate rooms. 

'I'd argue that my reason for having an untidy room (yes, there is reasoning behind it and not just a ‘can’t be bothered' attitude) is this: if I were to make my bed in the morning, I would only come back from school a few hours later and mess it up again. By my logic, I am saving myself time and effort in the morning, and these few extra seconds will be spent sleeping or making a more elaborate breakfast. Either way, I'll be in a better mood at the start of the day. Isn’t that preferable (dear parents)?

Messy bedroom

A messy bedroom (not Lola's)

(Image credit: Future)

'But it's more than just about bothering; it's about independence too. Carl E Pickhardt suggests in his article The Messy Room: Symbol of the Adolescent Age that a messy room may be to do with independence, individuality and opposition to parental rules – as if a child is saying to their parents "I should be able to live in my own space in my own way!". 

'This idea rings true to me, that a messy room is not a way of giving the middle finger to my parents, but simply that it's my own space – in a world where I do not yet own more than clothes or makeup. And this sense of ownership is undermined when one of my parents, who does not have to peer into the eyesore that is my room, feels the urge to nag and harass me about how my space should be. Unlike them, I don't have my own home office to clutter, my own garden shed-slash-gym or full ownership over the rest of our house. So what harm can it do if I defend the right to treat my own space as I see fit?

'That said, just because your teenager appears intent on maintaining this messy state, that doesn't necessarily mean they enjoy it or find it easy to live with. It is said that a messy room is the sign of a messy mind. And while this is not always true, I find myself most inclined to clean and, failing that, hide the mess, when I am at my most stressed or anxious. Very occasionally, particularly during an exam period, I find myself cleaning when time restraints are really too great to waste. I mean, I could be studying or relaxing instead. 

'And that's when I yearn for someone (parents) to sort out my room, while having an exact knowledge of where every single thing goes (impossible). But this conflict rarely translates into action – actually moving from in front of the TV or my workbook to ask for help. This is admittedly a source of anxiety for me, and when I didn't have time to clean my room during my last set of exams, I once or twice slept in the spare bedroom, just to stop the mess haunting me. I can only blame my pre-exam self for not tidying up before the pressure built.

'And of course, I recognise that anxiety can make it all the more challenging to stay focused and have the energy to straighten up my room; to find the concentration and energy levels needed to do the task becomes difficult or even impossible. And maybe that's why your teen's bedroom is messy: they're depressed – this is something Kendra Cherry suggests in her article What Does a Messy Room Say About Your Personality

'On the other hand, there are those who believe that a messy room is a sign of creativity, and that it encourages us to both relax and break free of social constructs. Tom McKay argues in his article The Science of Why the Most Creative People Have the Messiest Desks that creativity is spurred when things that we tend not to put in the same category come together; that when you allow some messiness into a system, new combinations can result. For example, if you keep all your tools in the tool shed and all your kitchen utensils in the kitchen, you might never think of using a kitchen utensil as a tool or vice versa. If your child is wants to go into the creative industry, a little mess may help them on their way.

'My mum taunts me about my "floor-drobe", baffled by the fact I keep no hanger in use as my clothes are always being used to carpet my floor. Again, my reasoning is that I will try on a pair of jeans in the morning and discard them if I don’t want to wear them; if I hang them up, they will only be taken down the next day to be worn, so why waste my time? This baffles my mum who asks how I can possibly know which clothes are clean and how can I ever find anything. However, as more of a bad excuse than sensible reasoning, I argue that it teaches me spacial awareness, a keen eye and the ability to distinguish what is clean or dirty by just a crease or the stiffness of the material. 

'That said, once every few months, the time must come for me to clean my room. For me this is prompted by not being able to find something I need. Most recently, it was something for my summer holiday... and the accompanying guilt I felt writing this article lead me to stop halfway through it and clean up the mess. It took up the better part of a day and all my good humour.'

Teen bedroom with floral wallpaper

A teen bedroom (also not Lola's)

(Image credit: Douglas Gibb)

 'To my dissatisfaction, I did not find what I needed for my holiday and, to add insult to injury, my mum came into my now clean room and – rather than offer me the trophy I expected or at least a cry of relief – she picked up on how the room was still not to her five star standard. So, to any teen reading and considering tidying their room, I cannot personally recommend it from this highly disappointing experience.

'The messy room debate creates so much friction in households. And although I understand parents' perspective of wanting a clean house so their visitors don’t recoil in horror at the mess, I do wonder why it matters SO much. What is more important? Increased resentment or increased floor space? A big mess or a big messy loving atmosphere?'

Lola Houlton

Lola Houlton is a student of Psychology who writes about what stresses and calms teens. She has been helping out at RH.com since 2018 when she was sixteen and has been asked to write a series of articles about teen psychology. Her bedroom is usually messy.