How to Declutter With a Teenager

by Katy on October 17, 2012 · 24 comments

I have two sons. One loves to clean and organize his room, and the other is like a cliche of a cliche of a cliche of a teenager. Clean laundry never gets put away and all horizontal surfaces are cluttered with Japanese souvenirs, candy wrappers and enough dust to create the world’s largest dust bunny. However, this kid is 17 years old, and I am not going to be that mother who cleans his room while he’s at school.

Hell, no!

But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up. Just last night I trapped him in his room and forced him to go through his clothing and decide what was ready to go to Goodwill. (His younger brother has a completely different sense of style, so hand-me-downs are rarely welcome.) Yes, there was whining and complaining, but I didn’t let that stand in my way.

Whining will happen. This is not a barrier to the process.

One at a time, we dumped each dresser drawer out onto his bed and made individual decisions about what to keep and what to donate. My son likes to hold onto old T-shirts to wear as “pajama shirts,” but this practice has resulted in thirty or so designated sleep shirts, which is just ridiculous. We decided that seven sleep shirts is a reasonable number, which gave my son a concrete way to get rid of the extras.

Concrete is key. Saying “how about we organize your clothing” is worthless. But saying “choose seven T-shirts to keep as pajama shirts” gets actual results.

Then drawer by drawer, we culled out the stretched out underwear, the giveaway T-shirts, the ripped-knee jeans. We then moved over to the closet and removed the too-small sneakers, the Homer Simpson hoodies and more giveaway T-shirts.

Task thus completed, there is suddenly enough room for his clothing, and favorite items have been located and are no longer hidden by the stuff my son would not be caught dead in. I’d been thinking my son needed a bigger dresser, but it turns out he just needed less clothing.

And yes, there were probably at least seven occasions of of “Are we done yet?!”

My plan is to go from category to category in his room to declutter and make room for actual functionality, (crazy, right?!)  until we rid his room of all the crap that mysteriously accumulated over the years. And because my son was involved in the process, he will have the tools to go through this process on his own.


Steps for decluttering with a teenager:

  • Involve the teen as much as possible. Give them ownership of all decisions. Do not take their belongings away without their permission.
  • Strive to make the decision concrete rather than vague. “Choose seven sleep shirts” rather than “Get rid of some of these.”
  • Tie the activity to the goal. “When your room is decluttered, then you’ll have space for displaying your favorite doodads, spreading our your homework or practicing your Gangnam-style dance moves .”
  • Choose a slow pace. You or I might enjoy an entire day dedicated to decluttering, but your teen will not. An hour at a time is a good guide. Those hours will add up and eventually make a difference.
  • Remember that the teen’s brain is not fully developed, so expecting logical behavior is highly discouraged.

Clear enough for you? Good, then you must be an adult.

Have you tried working with your teen to create a clean and organized space? Please share your ideas and tips in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Megyn @Unstuffed October 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

These tips can even be used with toddlers! I use generally the same principles when helping our 4.5 & 2.5 year olds clean and declutter. I’m hoping that by starting them young, the decision making and deeper analyzing will seem natural by the time they are your sons’ ages. 🙂


Kristen | The Frugal Girl October 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

Yep to what Megyn said…starting early in life is also really helpful. Cleaning and decluttering is not at ALL natural to my teenage son, nor has it ever been. But faithful, regular decluttering sessions throughout his life have definitely helped him to make progress.

He still needs to do decluttering in small doses, but he doesn’t agonize over things like he used to, and I can give him a pile of papers and he can easily sort them into keep and get-rid-of piles.

I know he’ll never be a minimalist or a very tidy housekeeper, but I am happy that he’s learned a few clutter management skills over the years.


Linda in Indiana October 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

Lots of the moms of teens around here collect several of their teens t’s and make a t-shirt quilt as a graduation present for their child/grandchild. Then the teen has a custom-made quilt (not hand quilted…just tied with yarn-kind)to take to college for their dorm that makes them feel less homesick…as if they would admit! I think your plan is an excellent one though. Just wanted to mention.


Tina October 17, 2012 at 9:53 am

I had an organized kid who liked keeping her room “just so”… and the cliche of the cliche of the cliche of the teenager too. But now that she’s in college, organized kid (who is still living at home) has turned into the biggest pig on planet earth. In her own room, I consider it her problem… in the bathroom, kitchen, and rest of house we share, it’s harder to ignore. Also hard to ignore when she’s stomping around the house, flipping out looking for her keys/wallet/ID badge/textbooks/makeup/hair thingamie/cell phone/work smock or whatever else she has most recently lost. Sigh.


Jenne October 17, 2012 at 9:57 am

We have a once-yearly clear out after Christmas—we call it Boxing Day, though it may or may not actually fall on that day—and donate everything culled to charity. I try to make it a big party, with snacks and music. Recently, however, I have been getting my kids to tackle single areas of their rooms (e.g. closet, desk) in return for simple decor upgrades from me. This might mean hanging a new light fixture or curtains, adding a shelf, etc. It’s a good way to force myself to finish the little home-improvement jobs I have neglected, too.


Susan October 17, 2012 at 9:58 am

“Remember that the teen’s brain is not fully developed, so expecting logical behavior is highly discouraged.” I think this point applies to many things, not just decluttering.

I do the same with my son for decluttering. I don’t know how he had so many clothes as we hardly ever go clothes shopping and he doesn’t grow that fast…hmmmm.


Renee CA October 17, 2012 at 10:28 am

Teens, toddlers, whatever…limits work for me as well. No, you really don’t need 37 vases. Choose 2 large, 4 medium, etc. I really do best with the items in question in front of me (very visual).


Amy October 17, 2012 at 10:49 am

And here I was thinking that this methodology would work wonderfully with my husband… Some day I am going to lock him in that room.


Diedra B October 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I was wondering if I could try this on my husband without starting a “tiff”


Renee CA October 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm

You might ask something like “How many t-shirts, pair of white socks, whatever, do YOU think you need to function?” “Which 5, or 10, whatever, do YOU like the best?” At least then it’s their choice.


Emily October 17, 2012 at 11:37 am

I completely emptied my daughter’s room to repaint it. I made her help move all her belongings back into the room so we could find a place for everything. It took about two hours and it was amazing the amount of stuff she decided she didn’t need to hang on to anymore. I think this could be done to any room (even without painting!). Take everything out and only put back what is good and useful.


Jennifer Nash October 17, 2012 at 11:52 am

I was thinking that some of the same tactics are useful for helping toddlers clean. I’ve been trying to get my 3 year old to pick up after himself (in the living room and his bedroom) every night before he goes to bed. If he doesn’t, it’s because I forgot to supervise it. Neither his father nor myself are very tidy people, so I’m hoping to break the cycle with this one. I’m going to keep working at him, though. Last night, after pulling almost everything out of his toy bin in the living room, I asked him to put all his toys away. I turned away to work on the kitchen, and when I looked back, almost everything was put away! I was so proud, since usually I have to supervise every second of clean-up time to make sure there’s more cleaning than playing ocurring.


Lucy October 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I must admit I was a total failure in raising a neat clean child. Plus when he finally married, I simply shoved all the junk in his room, complete with half-empty Doritos bags,into boxes and sent it with him. Now he is a neatnik, and I take my hat off to his new wife!


Renee CA October 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Love your picture of the Zits comic strip! I’ve been a fan since my daughter was a teen-ager (she’s 31) and have several of the comic strips in my “Humorous” file.


Cyndi October 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I’ve also found it useful to point out that it’s silly to go shopping until we’ve figured out exactly what is needed. So for clothes, that means trying them on and estimating how long they will still fit. We have a pretty good idea how much of each item is needed, so then it’s easy to know what to get. This works especially well because we both dislike shopping.

I also want to point out that I had a messy room as a teen. Not to the point of bugs or anything, but when I moved out a friend of my parents commented that it was the first time they had seen the floor. As an adult, my home is rarely magazine tidy, but it is clean and uncluttered. My point is that I think it’s important to teach skills, but not to totally stress.


Barb @ 1 Sentence Diary October 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

I second that! When I was a teenager, my room was such a mess there was just barely a path from bed to door. (Don’t tell my kids.) And I keep a pretty darn neat home now, with one area designated as the “stow the papers there until I get to it later” area. Sometimes teenagers are just … teenagers, which is what I try to remember when my kids leave their belongings all over the place.


Alison October 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm

We’re thinking about selling in the next year, so my way of getting into my 18 year old’s room to clean it out was by telling her we had to paint it to get it ready for selling. She went away for 5 days, and although she did manage to get it cleaned up a bit before she left, we took everything out, painted, and as a surprise, also bought new furniture, bedding, lamp, etc. which was more suited to a university student, which she now is. She is keeping it a lot tidier now, I think mainly because its no longer a little kid’s room, and I think she does appreciate the work and expense that went into it.


Lois October 17, 2012 at 6:32 pm

I had a slightly different approach, but it all works out in the end and now that both are adults they tell me it helped them to decide what was important. I would get so fed up with their rooms that I would give them a deadline. Say 5 days in the future to have their room cleaned up. Nothing on the floor, dirty clothes dealt with, etc. I would tell them that after that day I could enter at any point I felt like it and clean it myself, that also meant (and I told them) that I could toss anything I found and thought should be tossed.

They would make sure all the important items were picked up and put away so I wouldn’t toss them, leaving what didn’t really matter to them. Thing was on Day 6, 7.. I would give them a bag and tell them to fill the rest of the stuff in it to get rid of. It didn’t take long for them to realize what was still important or not. Today, they still take care of the most important, then decide on the rest.


Lynda October 18, 2012 at 12:36 am

I was an all or nothing teenager. Either it was perfect or a complete disaster.


JD October 18, 2012 at 6:08 am

When my kids were young, each Christmas day we had a rule: the kids couldn’t play with any new gifts until they’d gone into their rooms and cleaned out all the toys they no longer wanted or played with. We then donated all the good, clean toys to local families. It meant that their rooms stayed much neater and they learned to enjoy it, and got excited about giving toys to kids who didn’t get any at Christmas. Same thing with new clothes for school; outgrown ones need to go out first, and we would give the good ones to charity.
And on the teen issue; my horribly messy teen now actually keeps a neat home as an adult! There is hope!


Michelle October 18, 2012 at 6:34 am

For those favorite t-shirts, another option would be to make them into a memory quilt.


Lisa October 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

True story– A friend of mine had a teenage son and there was a lot of conflict in their house so they went to family therapy. One of the agreements they made in therapy was that she wouldn’t clean his room. So she didn’t for about six months, but then the room began to stink. Her son went away for the weekend so she figured enough was enough and she went in to clean. She found the source of the smell. There was a dead rat under his bed.


Ruby J. October 20, 2012 at 10:05 am

My son was very tidy until he hit about 14, and then his room began to resemble a bomb site. He was required to vacuum it once a week, put away clean laundry and make his bed, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it got very dusty and things would accumulate under the bed. I hit on the idea of having a deep-cleaning Saturday right before his birthday every year, which falls at a time of year when it makes sense to cull outgrown winter and summer clothes. He and I would work together to vacuum, dust, clean the blinds, wash the curtains, and then sorted out his closet together. It always resulted in bagfuls of junk for the trash and a fair amount of outgrown stuff for the charity thrift store.


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