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How to get your teen to clean up their room

The courtroom of the Honourable Justice Maureen Rascomb in the case of Matthew Thibodeau v. his mother.

Matthew: "It's really very simple: It's my room. Yes, it's a giant mess, but I'm the only one who lives there. No one else even needs to go into it. I keep the door closed so nobody has to see it except me. I live here. I am part of this family. This is the one and only part of this house that I have any say over. My mother rules the entire rest of this house. I like my room the way it is. I choose not to pick it up. To me, the room is comfortable. End of story. My case rests."

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His mother: "It is my house. I own it. When I die, Matthew gets half ownership of the house along with his sister. But I'm not dead yet. The house still belongs to me. Matthew's room is in my house. I own his room. I will not tolerate that the room that he lives in in my house - my room - be an abomination. When he gets older and moves out, he will have the right to have his room any way he wants. But not now. Not here."

It's an eternal household debate. Yet the bottom line is this: Who is right is really not the main point.

The main point is that messy teenage rooms are a major problem. If teenagers are not already in the habit of picking up after themselves, getting them to start doing so on a regular basis is very difficult, at best.

Parents resort to many strategies. Threats. Punishments. Rewards. Throwing everything into garbage bags and putting them in the garage. If they're desperate, throwing everything out. But interventions, if they work at all, are only temporary. And if a parent finds something that actually works, it's probably too harsh.

Harsh interventions can change behaviour, but at a cost: They also teach insensitivity in dealing with others.

There's one strategy that can be useful as a limited solution. Designate one day a week when both of you are going to be home - Sunday, for example - as room cleanup day. They are not allowed to do anything else until their room is picked up. But in order for this to be effective, you need to participate. Picking up a room of accumulated mess is not an easy task. Most teens don't know how or where to begin. You have to help them figure out what needs to go where and what needs to be thrown out.

Surprisingly, what often happens is that they do get into it, at least somewhat. They like their neatened room.

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"You were right. My room does look better. You'll see. I'm going to start picking up."

But don't hold your breath.

"I thought you were going to start regularly picking up your room."

"Yeah, I will. I was."

So how do you get a teenager who has never been in the habit of cleaning up to start doing it regularly? Do I have a recommendation that is going to work - without extraordinary effort on your part - or even with extraordinary effort on your part?

Sorry, I don't. I do not know how to accomplish that.

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It is one of those teenage conflicts that you do not win.

So you have to ask yourself: How big a deal do you want to make it? How much of a priority? Messy rooms are probably the classic example of an aggravation that's so difficult to change that, in the big picture, it's not big enough.

How will they ever learn? The way most people do. They mature. They become adults. They take more responsibility for managing their own lives. Parents no longer do it for them. They, as adults, decide how much they care about picking up after themselves. And, surprisingly, most do - even the guys. But some don't. And that's now their problem.

And what about the court case? Who has ultimate rights to the room? Let's listen to the judge.

The revered high court judge took off her spectacles and delivered her ruling.

"In the case of Matthew Thibodeau v. his mother, I find for his mother. The house does belong to her. Matthew does not have the right to have his room look like a pigsty."

"Yes!" shouted Matthew's mother, raising her fist in triumph.

Unfortunately, her victory celebration was short-lived.

"I'm not listening to some judge. I don't mean to be rude to you, ma'am, but you have no right to order me to clean up my room."

And he didn't.

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