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Why teens don’t help around the house — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

How do I get my teenagers to see what’s on the floor and help keep the house tidy? No one but me seems to notice anything on the floor from clothes to trash.

In Plain Sight

Don’t miss last week’s column Lessons of charity at an early age — Good Parenting

Dear IPS,

The trash and clothes may be in your field of vision, but the teenage brain is in a fog of school pressures, peer pressures, hormonal surges and, especially if they have an early school start time, the fog of incomplete sleep.

To understand how to get teens to pick up what’s on the floor, we need to understand why they don’t.


High school is a pivotal stage in an academic career. Teens face decision making that will impact their lives for years to come. Should I stay in the AP biology class because that will help me get into medical school, or switch to the general science requirement so I don’t have to quit the soccer team? Their minds may be on doing their best on homework assignments, long-term projects and test preparation while trying to balance other demands and still have some time for fun.

This age is also fraught with peer challenges. Cliques, bullying, friendships and romantic relationships can be all consuming. Teens are often preoccupied with their own physical appearance and attractiveness value to their peers. Through these vital social interactions teens are honing social skills that will aid them for a long time to come. Choosing, maintaining and ending friendships involves questioning one’s own identity and values, which in itself is a heady task.

To help your teens notice and attend to items they may have left on the floor, try to create a routine time for this that is most conducive to your direct supervision and their focus. This may be a daily pick up of the family room before homework time, a weekly laundry call and or a seasonal sort through of toys, gadgets and clothing before a yard sale or charity drive.

Key to cooperation will be identifying each teen’s motivation to get the job done, and your diligence in doing your part of each bargain.

  • “Please pick up the dishes, clothes (whatever) in the family room so I can vacuum. It’ll take me about 10 minutes which should be enough time for you to put everything away. Then the house will be quiet for studying.”
  • “You can have the washing machine first. I’ll be putting two loads through in about 45 minutes.”
  • “Anything you don’t claim in the basement by Sunday at 4 p.m. goes to the synagogue’s flea market.”


Often we delay or ignore tasks because of fatigue. The aforementioned school pressures plus the emotional roller coaster of their social lives can contribute to weariness. But lack of sufficient sleep is a rampant problem for teens. Unfortunately the main culprit is school start times that go against nature. While your grade schoolers are up with the sun, sleep research reveals that sleeping until 8 a.m. would better suit the adolescent brain. Sleep deprivation specifically limits one’s abilities for memory and alertness and, of course, contributes to a sour mood. This reframes the “lazy” label teens have inappropriately earned and should free them of the responsibility of remembering which day the recycling goes out.

See my past post about the Start School Later movement  and find out how you can help the school system take action toward healthier start times for high school.

Take advantage of a well-rested teen on school holidays and weather–related closings to get better cooperation for housework. A refreshed teen is more likely than a tired one to be interested in organizing personal items and shared spaces in your home so that demands for tidiness are reduced during school days (daze).


The common disregard of teens for the orderliness of their bedrooms and shared family spaces has probably been going on since teens have been expected to live under their parents’ roof past puberty. Existing in a gray area between childhood and adulthood, a teenager has little to call his or her own. Claiming the territory of a bedroom and expressing their presence with their things strewn about the house, make sense for one who is still tethered to the family nest but yearning for (and terrified by) an independent life to come.

One approach for appealing to teen motivations for self-expression and peer approval is to help your teens ready the home for visitors — their visitors. Your teens may take interest in rearranging the furniture, repainting the walls or changing the curtains in the family room or their bedroom if friends are going to visit. You might also make a family project out of turning the former basement playroom into a game playing, movie watching, snack friendly teen hangout. With their “stamp” on the environment, your teens can claim territorial pride in preparing the space for their friends’ enjoyment.

At the minimum, agree on a standard for tidiness before a friend or group can come over. Compare the get together at your home to one at an arcade or movie theater of their choosing. Their friends would probably not want to come again if encrusted dishes were poking out from under the seats.

Brain Science

Not only are teens distracted, tired and trying to figure out how to be independent, their brains are still very much a work in progress.

Scientific interest in teenage behavior is currently booming with research on physical brain development. Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt have written Teenage Brain, A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. The teenager’s frontal lobes, which are responsible for judgment and decision making, are among the last areas to develop strong links with other parts of the brain. Jensen and Nutt conclude that tidiness needs a sophisticated level of cognitive control that has yet to mature.

Says Jensen, “We expect a little bit more out of adolescents than we should, given where their brains are.”

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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