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Originally published Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Teen bedrooms as battlegrounds

A 10-point guide to navigating that most entrenched of domestic battlegrounds: the teenage bedroom.

The New York Times

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Kristyna Krueger took a deep breath, girding herself to enter her 14-year-old son Brandon's bedroom. Then she gingerly stepped in and described the spectacle.

"Every drawer is open," Krueger said, speaking on the phone from her home in Lake Ozark, Mo. "His desk, the night stand, his computer desk, his dresser. You cannot walk without stepping on clothes, cords for charging things, cologne and body-spray bottles. He does paintball. That stuff is all over."

She sidestepped his workout equipment but nearly tripped over a bowl of crushed potato chips that had been obscured by a sports award plaque.

"Hmmm," she said. "That's not like him to take the trouble to cover it up. Probably an accident."

She continued: "There are maybe 30 hangers in his closet, but they're empty. Except for the clothes he would never wear, like a suit, which have been pushed to the back. But the bottom of the closet, that's where his clothes are. On top of shoes. Which are on top of papers. And empty shoe boxes."

She concluded, "His room is an absolute wreck."

Yet Krueger's tone was surprisingly matter-of-fact. With two older teenagers at home, she has become inured to the fury and frustration familiar to parents who have ventured into the teenage wasteland their offspring proudly call a bedroom.

This is the time of year when the mess kicks in, full force. Most of the weapons in the parental quiver (including threats and bribery) have long since been fired, just to get that bedroom ready for the new school year. And by now, it has reverted to its natural anarchic state. What is a parent to do?

And from the point of view of the beseeched and the berated, what is a teenager to do about the parent?

After consultations with dozens of parents, teenagers and professionals who specialize in adolescent mess, there is some good news: Although teenage tidiness may be too much to hope for, sanitation is a possibility. Better still, detente may be within reach. Here, then, is a 10-point guide to navigating that most entrenched of domestic battlegrounds.

REALLY, WHY ARE YOU SO MAD?

Once again, your teenager's wet towel has been tossed onto the bed. Why does this always incite you? Maybe because it feels like a nyah-nyah, a rebel colony's defiance of the parent ruler. But parental insta-rage can be about so much more.

"Parents are embarrassed," said Deborah Silberberg, an owner of ShipShape, a professional organizing company. "They wonder whether it represents their lack of parenting control. It's hard for parents to have to let go of their kid."

Guilt and fear are also factors. Does the mess mean that parents have poorly prepared their children to care for themselves?

As Hillary Barnett of Hillsdale, N.J., whose son Eric is a college freshman, put it, "God help his dorm mate."

Parents like Sandy Atanasoff of Danbury, Conn., for whom hygiene and neatness are second nature, cannot understand how their children can be oblivious to their living conditions — like the network of cobwebs growing in her daughter Gina's room, or the sheets on the bed that remain unwashed for weeks. Sandy Atanasoff is also taunted by the memory that somewhere under her 17-year-old daughter's T-shirts, preschool memorabilia and thrift shop treasures, there is a desk.

"I can't bear to stay in there too long," Atanasoff said. "It causes me angst."

IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU

As Barbara Greenberg, a psychologist and an author of "Teenage as a Second Language," observed, "The more you make it an issue, the more you'll prolong the problem."

"It's in their nature to assert boundaries and say no," she said. "So parents have to do what seems paradoxical: Let it go. Otherwise, the kid will have identified it as a wonderful way to act out."

Teenagers are on a long march toward autonomous adulthood, as psychologists like Marsha Levy-Warren, the author of "The Adolescent Journey," point out. And mastering the clean room is a blip on their map.

"Kids are so preoccupied during adolescence with who they want to be that they are inside themselves," Levy-Warren said. "They lose sight of what's outside. They don't even see their rooms. There's a lot for them to figure out."

Homework. Social tribes. After-school activities. Sexuality. Drugs. Hygiene. Driving.

The minutiae of living can take teenagers years to fully grasp. In the moment, which is where they exist, it can feel overwhelming.

"Most kids are quite chaotic internally, and rooms reflect the degree of chaos," Levy-Warren said.

So, are the clothes on the floor thoughtless or intentional?

"Some kids' messiness consists of every item of clothing being on the floor, and they'll say, 'That's what I want and I know what I have,' " she said. "Other kids don't even have an answer."

A CAVE OF ONE'S OWN

His mother may call his room an "absolute wreck," but what does it mean to Brandon Krueger, a freshman who drills with the marching band at 6:45 a.m., practices football daily for the junior varsity and varsity teams, plays three games a week and maintains an A-minus average?

"My privacy, my place to relax and to get some peace," he replied in an email. "I don't clean it very often. I am busy and tired all the time."

Kristi, a mother who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy, has a 13-year-old daughter whose room is an archaeological site of dirty socks, sports-drink bottles, ripped papers and empty boxes of Cheez-Its.

But Kristi raised her daughter during two traumatic marriages and a recent uprooting from Omaha to a Seattle suburb. And her daughter has new friends, made the gymnastics and volleyball teams and gets straight As.

So Kristi is fine with her daughter's bedroom-as-Dumpster.

"It's the one place where she gets to act out," Kristi said. "She is so pulled together in so many other ways."

REBELS WITHOUT A CLUE

The shout heard 'round the neighborhood: "Clean your room!"

A common (though unspoken) response? "I don't know how."

Certainly parenting blogs reverberate with cries for guidance about how to deal with teenagers and their rooms. But there is a parallel universe on teenagers' blogs, where teenagers seek advice about how to deal with the mess.

Prominent among the cleanup tips: "Get in the mood by blasting your favorite music" and "Limit Facebook breaks to 30 minutes."

As Levy-Warren observed, sometimes teenagers really don't know how to pick up after themselves.

"Or they're not ready to," she added, "because that's eliminating the role of the adult who picked up after them in childhood. And some kids aren't ready to let go."

Also, to many teenagers, attacking the wreckage can feel Sisyphean. Gina Atanasoff has just about given up.

"My room has so much clutter," she said, "that it's too hard to penetrate."

But she has reframed the task and given herself a pat on the back.

"I read online somewhere that creative people function better with mess," she said.

Other teenagers express creativity through excuses. Barnett's youngest child, Kelsey, 14, invokes what Barnett calls "The Kids of Divorced Parents Rule 101: I'm never in one place long enough to clean it up."

Often, though, the reason for the mess is more basic: inertia.

As Barnett said of her son, "Eric thinks that by taking clothes out of the laundry to his room, he'll be exhausted."

And so, the folded, the clean, the wrinkled, the soiled — they all carpet his carpet.

"I think he throws something against the wall and whatever sticks, he decides is dirty," Barnett said.

Still, she has managed to find a silver lining. Recently, as she was preparing to leave on a business trip, she reminded Eric that there would be no parties at the house while she was gone.

"He said: 'Mom, think about it: If I had a party here, I would have to clean up so you wouldn't find out."'

Barnett relaxed. "And that's how I knew there was no way this child would have a party in my absence," she said.

WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?

If parents are baffled by the mess, teenagers are often equally baffled by (and indifferent to) their parents' reactions.

During a phone interview, as Jeanne Buckley, a mother of three teenagers in Chatham, N.J., wondered aloud how her 17-year-old daughter could sleep in such a messy room, a shouted retort could be heard in the background: "Quite easily!"

Buckley said she has asked her daughter, "'Doesn't it bother you that I nag you?' And she says, 'No, I just switch it off."'

Ask most adolescents why their rooms make parents so angry, and the response is usually a shrug, the hounded expression of the persecuted or a list of friends whose rooms are so much worse that their own parents should feel lucky.

Brandon Krueger's parents, for example, think his room should be "crystal and shiny," he said. "Mine is just organized: shoes with shoes, clothes with clothes," he said, but his parents complicate things by wanting him "to keep things separate: light jeans with light jeans, shorts with shorts, shirts and everything on hangers."

"I like to keep cleaning simple and easy," he said. "I will throw away trash, put laundry in. My parents don't consider this cleaning, but I do."

YOUR SPACE, MY PLACE

There are piles of parenting books about adolescent clutter, advocating strategies that range from draconian to determined indifference. But on one thing they all agree: Define boundaries.

Teenagers want to rule their bedroom like a kingdom. In exchange, parents should insist that the mess not creep throughout the home.

It is easier for a parent to wash the dirty plate left on the kitchen counter than to enforce those boundaries. But establishing public-private territorial respect is nonetheless part of the parenting job description, said Dena Gardi, the mother of an 18-year-old and 13-year-old twins in San Francisco.

"You say it over and over," Gardi said. " 'Public spaces are public spaces! Move the backpack.' And they'll say: 'Oh, really, I have to do it? OK, OK.' But then they walk away. And I say, 'No, pick it up.' And I'll stand there till it's done."

HAZARDOUS WASTE SITE

The question looms: How do you get teenagers to do something they don't want to do?

First, experts say, praise their accomplishments, assuring them that you don't consider them to be out-of-control messes personally.

Then what? Cattle prod? (No phone and no weekend plans for the foreseeable future.) Bribery? (Offer movie tickets when the teenager evicts the village of bacteria living under the bed.) Kidnapping? (Shove the teenager's clothes into a garbage bag and return them once designated areas of the room have been cleaned.)

What are you really trying to achieve?

Experts say that because adolescents are stubborn and defensive, harsh approaches tend to have limited success. Improving communication is key, both to the room and the relationship.

Try to pop the tension of the power struggle with a pinprick of humor.

Like the mother who rented a white biohazard suit and helmet. She appeared at her daughter's door and hollered to an invisible crew, "Come on in, boys!" The daughter started laughing and allowed her mother in. Together they got to work.

Others have put yellow crime-scene tape across the bedroom door.

One mother knew she couldn't get her sons to clean up, but she did want to defuse the contentiousness. So she warded off the cleaning lady, posting a sign on their door: "Monkey Cage."

ONE DUST MOTE AT A TIME

Part of the problem is that most teenagers have too much stuff, said Silberberg, the organizer.

"Let them volunteer at a homeless shelter," she said. "You say, 'People love to donate to toddlers, but teenagers get zero.' Then give them a box to fill. They will feel like they're doing something valuable."

And break down the cleaning into small tasks, Levy-Warren suggested.

"There's something symbolic about making a neat bed to get into at night," she said. "It's about being able to end and start the day with a clean slate."

But what about that zoo of stuffed animals on the bed? Offer the teenager a bin, tell her she can select six favorites and rotate the rest.

Krueger's children must put laundry in a hamper on a specific weekday. And if they howl at the last minute for favorite jeans? Missed deadline, wash them yourself.

Barnett drew the line at globs of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, sink and counters. Now everyone brushes teeth in the shower and spits toothpaste down the drain.

DANGER ZONE

When is a mess more than just a mess?

Greenberg said that if "you have a teenager who until 15 was keeping a tidy room and suddenly it's a mess, plus other changes are happening," it is time to investigate. "If their eyes are bloodshot, they've stopped doing homework, something is going on."

CLOSE ONE DOOR, OPEN ANOTHER

Krueger's oldest child, Jake, 19, will leave for college in January. She used to describe his room as "atrocious."

When he was 14, they sparred constantly. One night, she lost it.

"I said: 'Are you kidding me? Do we need to move things out of your room so you have less to take care of?' He got really upset and didn't come out of his room for hours."

That was when she realized that the harangues resolved nothing. When Jake emerged, she said: "I'm done putting so much thought into you having a clean room. It's not worth hurting your feelings."

She wrestled with that decision for years.

"I'd say to my husband, 'You wouldn't believe it.' And he'd say, 'Don't forget: It's not important.' "

Instead, she started a Saturday ritual, asking her children whether they wanted help cleaning. The household mood lightened.

"It's become some of the best times we have together," she said. "Letting go of that control has changed my relationship with all three. When you make the bed together, it's a different feeling for both of us."

During her recent phone conversation with a reporter, Krueger left Brandon's bedroom and went into the room of her daughter, Jordyn, 15.

"Half neat, half messy," she pronounced.

Finally, Jake's room. Audible gasp.

"I haven't been here in a while," she said. "All of his drawers are closed. Jake's computer desk ... might ... even ... be ... dusted. Oh, look: His bed is made!"

Brandon has taken note of his older brother's bedroom as well. It has given him fresh justification not to address his own mess.

"Jake is moving out soon," he wrote in an email. "And I am going to take his room. His room is bigger, and it's clean."

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