How Can You Raise a Clean Teen?

It's possible to get your teenager to help keep the house clean -- it just takes patience.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 21, 2010
7 min read

What’s the biggest source of conflict with your teenage son or daughter? For many parents, it’s not dating or broken curfews or bad grades – it’s cleaning.

For them, the most ferocious arguments will typically have a mundane source -- a wet coat thrown on the couch, a backpack left in the middle of the hallway. Your teens get sick of being nagged; you get sick of nagging. Even after the fight ends, a cold war ensues -- weeks of dramatic sighs, surly stares, and eye rolling.

Some parents give up on the cleaning battle, despairing of ever getting their kids to pick up after themselves. Others start up a campaign of constant aggression, with lots of demands and threats and yelling. Neither approach is likely to help things much, 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.

The good news is that Wibbelsman and other experts say that raising a clean teen – or at least a not-excessively-sloppy teen -- is possible. It will take some forethought and consistency on your part, and perhaps some changes in your behavior and expectations. But done right, the payoff is big: a better relationship with your teen and a cleaner home.

Many parents just don’t understand why cleaning house has to be such a big deal. Why is it so hard for a teenager to pick up a towel from the bathroom floor, after all? But it’s not just about the towel, or the dirty dishes, or the unmade bed. Wibbelsman says that there’s often a pretty basic reason behind conflicts over cleaning.

“Your kids are growing up,” he tells WebMD. “Your kids aren’t just kids anymore.” They’re a few years from adulthood and they’re desperate for more independence. The parent-child relationship that worked pretty well for so long is now feeling a little constrictive.

So what can you do, now that your authority might not carry the weight it once did? You might need to give your kids more of the control that they want, Wibbelsman says. But you also need to tie that adult freedom with a sense of adult responsibility. That’s the exchange.

“Parents need to respect an adolescent’s need for independence and individuality,” says Wibbelsman. “But adolescents need to have some respect for their parents’ ground rules. It is their house, after all.”

So you impose some standards and requirements, while also granting your teens more control over how their rooms look, or how they dress, or what bumper stickers they put on their cars. Allowing them more self-expression and self-determination could really help them feel happier, improve your relationship, and make it easier to agree on cleaning issues.

What’s the alternative? If you insist on controlling things too tightly, your teens could feel like you’re stifling their personalities. That could poison your relationship and -- obviously -- make them fiercely resistant to working with you on keeping things clean around the house.

So what are some of the ways you can put this philosophy into practice? Here are some ideas.

  • Adjust your expectations. Face it: you won’t be able to get your teens to do all the chores you want them to do. In fact, the more tasks you pile on, the less likely they’ll do any of them, says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD,a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls and The Wonder Years.
    So decide what’s really essential to you and what you’re willing to let slide. “Maybe your teen is refusing to make her bed every day and you’re always fighting about it,” says Altmann. “You might want to take a step back.” Does a made bed really matter to you that much? Maybe not. However, some other tasks – like bringing dirty dishes to the sink – could be absolute requirements in your book.
  • Come to an agreement. Once you know what you want, sit down and talk. “Negotiate with your teen a little,” says Altmann. “Come up with a cleaning plan that both parent and teen are comfortable with.” Sure, it might not be either party’s ideal, but it’s better than the never-ending argument.
  • Be absolutely clear. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your kids will know what you mean when you say, “Clean your room.” What qualifies as “clean,” exactly? Picked up? Vacuumed and dusted? Or just a bit less disgusting than it is now? The answer might seem obvious to you – it might seem like common sense -- but it might not be to them.
    “If you were hiring a new employee, you wouldn’t just tell them, ‘Do a good job,’” says Wibbelsman. “You’d have a job description. You’d have a list of specific objectives.” It’s no different when you’re talking to your kids about their cleaning responsibilities, Wibbelsman says. You need to come up with a list of specifics. That way, you all know exactly what “clean” means – and there’s less room for miscommunication and argument.
  • Have sensible consequences. So what happens if your kids don’t clean up as they’re supposed to? There have to be consequences. Don’t make up new punishments on the spot when you’re angry. You’ll probably regret it. Make the repercussions predictable and consistent. Sticking to the tried-and-true is fine, Wibbelsman says. Dock their allowance. Set earlier curfews. Take away car privileges.
    What if that doesn’t work? What if after all that, your kids still won’t clean their messy rooms? Wibbelsman has a suggestion. Explain to your teens that since they won’t clean their rooms, you’ll hire someone to do it – and pay for it out of their allowance.
  • Require basic hygiene. Some teens are pretty careful with their appearance and hygiene because they don’t want to stand out at school, says Altmann. But others don’t seem to care – something that’s especially common with teenage boys, Wibbelsman says.
    You might be uncertain how to broach the issue, since you don’t want to knock your teens’ self-esteem. But experts say that it’s OK to set some minimum hygiene standards – like showering daily and wearing clean clothes -- as part of their household responsibilities. If your kids don’t, the usual punishments apply.
  • Be a good example. Want your kids to clean up their act? Clean up yours first. “If one of the parents is slovenly and doesn’t provide a good example,” says Wibbelsman, “how can you expect the teen to be conscientious about keeping things clean?”
  • Don’t micromanage. Give your teens a task and a deadline. Then back off and let them accomplish it in their own way. So when your son’s doing yard work, don’t keep butting in with leaf-raking tips. Don’t keep pushing your daughter, for their own sake, to get their laundry out of the way first thing in the morning. Sure, you mean well. But you’re getting involved when you don’t need to be, and probably driving your kids nuts – which could make for some unnecessary conflict.
  • Keep your cool. So your son told you – five times! – that they would take out the garbage. But they didn’t, and the trashcans are now overflowing and buzzing with flies. Sure, you’re angry. But try not to let anger dictate what you do next. As much as you can, you want to stick to the responsibilities and repercussions that you’ve worked out with your teen. Keeping things predictable will make it less personal and less heated.
  • Don’t be mean. “Parents have to be careful not to get negative,” says Wibbelsman. “Don’t start demeaning your kid, calling her a slob all the time. That doesn’t work.” Instead, you need to help build your teens’ self-image, and to encourage basic cleanliness as a sign of self-respect.
  • Consider the larger issues. If you tell your teens that you’re making them wash your car to “build their character,” that probably won’t go over well. But remember that requiring your teens to clean up around the house isn’t only about your personal desire to have a neat living room.
    “There’s a larger purpose to getting your kids to clean up after themselves,” says Wibbelsman. “Parents are teaching their kids an important lesson about respecting other people and other people’s property.” Keeping things tidy really will matter when they’re adults.
    “In a few years, these adolescents will be on their own and dating,” says Wibbelsman. “They’ll have roommates. They need to know how to clean up after themselves.” Treating your teens seriously – and talking about how their behavior will affect their adult lives – might really help the conversation, Wibbelsman says.

There’s some final advice that’s at least as important as the other suggestions: Don’t try to change who your kids are. Part of the issue here is personality and temperament. Can you require that your teens do their own laundry and pick up their shoes? Yes. Can you make sloppy teens become a fastidious, tidy people? No – no more than you can make them, through force of will, into concert cellists or medal-winning high divers.

“Our kids are not ourselves,” says Wibbelsman. “You can’t impose your own personality on them.”

So as parents, you need to set some standards for how your kids behave in your house and some expectations they have to meet. But don’t go too far beyond that. Don’t try to change how they think. Respecting your teens’ individuality can mean compromise – accepting that they’re just not quite as tidy as you wish they were, and that it’s not something that arguing will change.