Teen Mental Health and the Japanese Art of Tidying Up

Teens are notorious for having messy rooms. But all that clutter may be negatively impacting their mental health. Could the Japanese art of tidying up help teens focus better, sleep more deeply, and feel less stressed?

Marie Kondo described this method in her New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And she is also the host of the Netflix show Tidying Up, which was released on New Year’s Day. In the show, she helps families organize their homes and get rid of the things they don’t want.

It’s become a huge hit, because early in the year is a time when people tend to think about clearing clutter, getting organized, and starting fresh. (Spring is the other popular time of year for cleaning house, of course.) As a result, thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army have been receiving an increased amount of donations. And people around the country are using the Marie Kondo folding method to organize their clothing.

The Japanese Art of Tidying Up vs. an American Epidemic of Clutter

Americans have a lot of stuff. For their book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, a team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, visited the homes of 32 typical middle-class families in the city. And they found that most of them had far more possessions than they really needed or used. For example, in the first house they went to, researchers counted more than 2,000 items in just the first three rooms.

Why is this a problem? Because living in a messy, overcrowded home can create anxiety. In addition, clutter can even affect our eating habits. Research shows that we’re more likely to eat junk food and watch television when we live in a chaotic environment.

Marie Kondo has an approach to clearing clutter that she calls the KonMari method, part of the Japanese art of tidying up. Here’s how she directs people to decide what to get rid of: Pick up an item and ask yourself, Does it spark joy? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, thank it for serving you, and send it on its way.

“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
―Marie Kondo

Why Teens Are Messy

Teen cleaning tends to be a rare event. And parents sometimes interpret the clutter as a statement of rebellion. But there are many reasons why teens have messy rooms.

A messy room is a declaration of independence.

Teens are in a process of forging their individual identities and becoming autonomous. Thus, they have their own ideas about how they want to live their lives. Hence, a messy room is a way of showing that, in their own space, they will follow their own rules and preferences rather than what their parents want.

Teens are busy.

Along with school and homework, they often have sports, music lessons, or after-school activities, not to mention friends and social events. Therefore, they don’t carve out time to keep their rooms neat. Moreover, cleaning is not a priority for them.

Cluttered rooms may reflect internal chaos.

Adolescence is a time of turbulent emotions and intense physical and mental growth. Hence, a teen’s room can be an outer representation of the upheaval that’s occurring inside them.

Like adults, teens love stuff.

Teenagers often have their own spending money from after-school jobs or allowances. And deciding how to spend it is part of their identity-building process. Surveys show that clothing tops the list of items that teens buy, followed by accessories, cosmetics, shoes, and video games. Hence, all of these items contribute to cluttered rooms, especially because teens often lack sufficient storage space.

They don’t know how to clean.

If their parents didn’t teach them when they were young, teens might not have the skills to organize. And it’s challenging for parents to assign chores for teenagers. In fact, trying to enforce chores for teens is likely to create parent-child conflict.

Hence, the may be a solution to both teens’ and parents’ struggles with clutter and messiness. 

How Clutter Affects the Brain and Nervous System 

Research using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) found that disorganization and clutter have a negative impact on the way our brains work. Hence, clearing clutter from our environment helps us focus better, process information more efficiently, and increase our productivity. In addition, tidying up helps us feel less irritable and distracted, studies show.

Moreover, the spaces we live and work in also influence our emotions and behavior. In addition, they affect our relationships. Furthermore, clutter increases our stress levels. Living in a messy, disorganized home means that our nervous system is always in a state of low-grade “fight or flight.”

Some studies have shown that clutter produces anxiety and can even make people feel depressed. One study of mothers living in cluttered homes found that they had higher-than-average levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The Link Between Messy Rooms, Sleep Habits, and Mental Health

Research shows that people who sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep problems. Such problems include difficulty falling asleep and sleep disturbances during the night.

A study by psychology professor Pamela Thacher and her student Alexis Reinheimer looked at the sleep habits of people with tendencies toward hoarding disorder. Hence, they compared people who hoarded with participants who did not have those tendencies. And they found that those who hoarded experienced significantly lower sleep quality and more sleep-related daytime disturbances. The more clutter they had in their homes, the more likely they were to have a sleep disorder.

People who hoard often have problems with decision-making and executive function, Thacher says. In addition, poor sleep has a negative impact on cognitive ability and mental health. Therefore, cluttered spaces plus poor sleep quality multiply the risk of cognitive dysfunction, depression, and stress.

Clutter, Eating Habits, and the Japanese Art of Tidying Up

Moreover, living in a cluttered home means we are more likely to make poor eating choices. For example, one study found that being in a messy room means we are twice as likely to eat a chocolate bar rather than an apple. So spending most of their time in a messy room may contribute to a teenager’s poor eating habits.

In one study, 101 female undergraduate students were placed in either an organized kitchen or a messy and chaotic kitchen. In addition, they were asked to write about a time when they felt particularly in control or out of control.

Next, they were asked to taste and rate a selection of cookies, crackers, and carrots. As a result, participants in the messy kitchen ate twice as many cookies as participants in the organized kitchen. But the environment had no impact on how many crackers or carrots they ate.

Researchers concluded that a chaotic environment makes us more vulnerable to unhealthy food choices. However, our mindset and attitude can either trigger or buffer against that vulnerability.

What Is Hoarding Disorder?

Hoarding disorder is a mental health disorder listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

It is defined by compulsively buying things and not getting rid of anything. As a result, people with hoarding disorder accumulate huge amounts of clutter. Thus, their living spaces become uncomfortable or even unusable.

Moreover, people with hoarding disorder experience intense anxiety and distress when the objects they have collected are thrown away. In fact, a Yale study using fMRI looked at what happened to the brains of people who hoard when they got rid of some of their possessions. And they found that the areas of the brain that were activated are the same areas responsible for physical pain.

“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future. … The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” 

―Marie Kondo on the Japanese art of tidying up

How to Keep Teen Clutter at Bay  

Here are a few ways that parents can help teens stay organized and avoid the detrimental effects of clutter on mental health.

Teach them early.

While it’s never too late to learn the Japanese art of tidying up, the best way to help teens stay organized is to start early. Even very young children can help clean up. That way, they build a healthy habit.

Set an intention and a vision.

Teens will be more inspired to clear out clutter if they’re invested in the outcome. Parents can encourage teens to imagine what their room will look and feel like when it’s clean and organized. They might even want to connect that vision with an intention or word, such as “peaceful” or “relaxing.”

Newport Academy Restoring Families Resources: Newport Academy Well-being Resources: Japanese art of tidying

One thing in, one thing out. 

Teens can get rid of something they’re not using every time they buy something new. Parents can model this approach as well. The Japanese art of tidying up offers clear guidelines for deciding when to let go of things.

Bring laughter into the equation.

A New York Times article about teen’s messy rooms featured a mother who appeared at her daughter’s bedroom door wearing a rented biohazard suit and helmet. Then she hollered to an invisible crew, “Come on in, boys!” The daughter started laughing, and the two of them began cleaning up together.

Start a cleaning ritual as a family.

Cleaning up the house can become a regular routine for the whole family. Everyone can clean their own spaces, or the family can work together on the messiest areas. Hence, the Japanese art of tidying up can ultimately bring families closer together.

Photos by Newport Academy, Arnel Hasanovic, Chang Duong, and Rick Mason  from Unsplash.

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Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Jan;36(1):71–81.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Aug; 69(8): 832–841.