Is Your Teen's Bedroom a Health Hazard?

Unless your kid is using his room to harbor wild animals or make explosives, it's probably not a true health hazard. But it might get plenty yucky in there.

From the WebMD Archives

Could your teen's bedroom be a health hazard? With the piles of crusty socks, the old cereal bowls of curdled milk, and the mildewed towels, it certainly might look -- and smell -- that way.

Happily, as disgusting as your teen's messy room might be, it's unlikely to pose any serious health risks. "I've never seen any teenager who actually got sick because her room was unsanitary," says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD,a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls and The Wonder Years.

Of course, whether or not your teen's messy room meets the Department of Health's legal definition of a health hazard isn't really the issue. If your teen's bedroom is disgusting, and it bothers you, you need to do something about it.

"Teenagers need to learn how to look after themselves, and cleaning their rooms is part of that," says Charles Wibbelsman, MD, chairman of the Chiefs of Adolescent Medicine for Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and co-author of The Teenage Body Book. It's a basic responsibility and a skill they'll need as adults, he says.

So how can you get your teen to keep his or her room clean, or at least somewhat less disgusting? Here's some advice from the experts.

What Lurks in Your Teen's Bedroom?

Unless your kid is using his room to harbor wild animals or make explosives, he's probably not created a genuine health hazard. But it still might get plenty yucky.

"If you can smell your teen's room down the hall -- because of old food or old laundry -- that's not sanitary," Altmann tells WebMD. "And it could even conceivably pose some health problems." Like what?

  • Mold. Depending on the weather, it won't take long for mold to start growing on a half-eaten sandwich. Large amounts of mold could actually affect the air quality and aggravate a person's allergies or asthma.
  • Insects and other pests. As you've no doubt already said to your teen a thousand times, dirty dishes attract insects -- like ants and cockroaches -- as well as other pests like mice and rats. Dust mites can thrive in clutter. Finding any of these creatures in your house is disgusting. But some can carry disease as well as trigger allergies and asthma, Altmann says.
  • Bacteria and other fungi. Some nasty things can grow on unwashed, damp clothing in a messy room. And if your teen keeps wearing the clothes pulled off the floor rather than out of the bureau, he could develop rashes and other problems -- like jock itch, which is caused by a fungus.

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Messy Rooms: Getting Your Kid to Clean Up

While you may be horrified by the revolting things that you discover in your teen's bedroom, you may still feel powerless to do anything about them. Asking, pleading, and screaming don't seem to work. So how should a parent handle it?

Some parents hope that kids will learn their lessons naturally. They pray that their slovenly daughter will change her ways after discovering a favorite skirt at the bottom of a laundry pile, befouled by mildew. They hope that their son will see the light after stepping on a swarm of ants bustling around a candy wrapper.

That approach could work, but it might not. Taking a more direct approach in dealing with your teen's bedroom is probably a better idea. Here are a few tips.

Settle on some standards. Before you get into a struggle with your teen, you need to decide what exactly you want from him. What constitutes a "clean" room? How often does it need to be clean? If you make up rules on the fly, or in anger, you're bound to get stuck enforcing some dumb policies. Besides, any teen worth his or her salt will be able to find the loopholes in poorly thought-out cleaning rules.

Distinguish between untidy and unsanitary. A messy room with piles of books and papers might annoy you.But they're not unsanitary like a pile of dirty plates. Don't confuse the two.

Pick your battles. "If you go to your teen with a list of 20 things that you want her to do, she won't do any of them," says Altmann. "But if you figure out a few things that are the most important to you, you may have better luck." So decide what's mandatory. Making the bed every day? Putting away the laundry? Getting homework done? Once you've settled on a few essential things that your teen has to do, you have to let go of some of the other stuff.

Respect your teen's individuality. A teen who isn't doing things the way you want isn't necessarily being obstinate or rebellious. He or she may just be less neat and organized than you are. "You may want your kid to be a certain kind of person, but he may not be that person," says Wibbelsman. "You have to respect him anyway."

So instead of forcing your teen to do things just as you would, come up with some cleaning responsibilities that you can both live with. Then let your teen meet those responsibilities in his or her own way.

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Talk things over as a family. Altmann recommends that families get together to talk over household issues regularly -- maybe once a week. So use a regular meeting to go over the new policy for your teen's bedroom. Make sure that you understand each other and your teen's responsibilities are clear.

Negotiate. Rather than just making demands, see what you can offer to help your teen keep his room clean. "You can make deals," says Altmann. "For instance, if your teen agrees to bring his dishes down to the sink, you can agree to rinse them and put them in the dishwasher."

Give them more responsibility. If you're locked in a messy room battle, sometimes increasing your teen's responsibilities is the right idea. Maybe your teen's messy room aggravates you because you're always in there picking out the dirty laundry from the rubble. If that's the case, change the arrangement. Make your teen do her or her own laundry, Wibbelsman suggests. You remove the source of conflict, and your teen will better understand the consequences of his or her actions.

Don't snoop. Make sure your intentions are pure. Wibbelsman says that some parents use their outrage about messy rooms as cover for something else: snooping. Supposedly in the name of tidiness, they go through pockets, check beneath mattresses, and probe the dark corners of their teen's closets.

While a parent's desire to snoop is understandable, Wibbelsman says it should be resisted. Teenagers are on the verge of adulthood and they deserve some privacy. Once you start breaking their trust, he says, it can poison your whole relationship.

Take control. If your teen just refuses to do what you've agreed on, Altmann says you need to lay down the law. "Remember, you're the parent," she says. So tell your teen that you need a clean room -- or at least a cleaner one -- and give him or her a deadline. If your teen doesn't meet it, take away privileges.

Battle of the Bedroom

When it comes to messy teen bedrooms, many parents find themselves involved in a ferocious conflict without knowing how they got there. How did you suddenly become that parent, the stock figure of teen comedies who's always screeching at the kids about their messy rooms?

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It may be time to rethink things. Don't let a messy room become the focal point of your whole relationship. Not only will constantly haranguing your teen about a messy room not work, but it could have other bad effects.

"Parents need to help their kids develop a positive self-image," says Wibbelsman. "And if all you're doing is shouting at your kid, calling him a slob who can't do anything right, that's not good."

So even if you're frustrated, try to keep some perspective. Wibbelsman says it's important to focus on your kids' strengths more than their faults.

"Tell your kids that you're proud of them," says Wibbelsman. "Tell them how pleased you are that they're doing well in school or on the basketball team." If you're working from a basis of respect and trust, you'll find it much easier to negotiate, Wibbelsman says.

"Then it's a lot easier to say, 'Could you also put your underwear in the hamper once in a while?'"

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 16, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, pediatrician; clinical instructor, Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, Los Angeles; author, Mommy Calls.

Charles Wibbelsman, MD, co-author, The Teenage Body Book; chairman, Chiefs of Adolescent Medicine for Kaiser Permanente, Northern California; clinical professor of pediatrics, University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

McCoy K. and Wibbelsman C., The Teenage Body Book, Hatherleigh, 2008.

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