Messy teens are an adolescent stereotype. Refusing to keep their room neat is often a way for teens to claim their space and declare independence from their parents. However, teens with messy rooms, particularly if the messiness is extreme, may be struggling with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or ADHD. In some cases, when a teenager has a messy room, depression may be the underlying issue.
- A messy room can be a sign of creativity and freedom—or it can indicate an underlying mental health disorder.
- Symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, hopelessness, or difficulty concentrating, can lead to teen messiness.
- A messy room can create stress and other negative emotions, leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Research shows that living in a chaotic environment affects our emotions, behavior, relationships, and even our eating habits.
- If teen messiness appears to be the result of hopelessness, lack of motivation, and/or social isolation, treatment of underlying depression may be the right next step.
Messy Room Psychology: What Does a Messy Kid’s Room Mean?
A messy teen bedroom doesn’t necessarily mean a child has depression or another mental health issue. Messiness can actually be a sign of creativity and freedom. Or it may mean a teen is busy with school, hobbies, and socializing, and hasn’t made time to clean their messy bedroom.
However, a messy room can also be an outward sign of feeling disorganized or overwhelmed. Letting your room get messy can also be an expression of the feeling that nothing matters, so why bother trying to keep things neat?
Another reason for a messy room is difficulty letting go of things. When a teen has underlying trauma and attachment wounds, or has suffered an intense loss, they may hold on to tangible objects that have meaning to them—even if those things seem like trash or clutter to others.
Is a Messy Room a Sign of Depression?
According to Mental Health America, 15 percent of US teens have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. And depression brings with it a wide range of symptoms. What’s the messy room–depression link? One way in which messiness and mental illness are related is that the symptoms of depression can lead to teen messiness.
- Exhaustion and constant fatigue are red flags of depression. These symptoms leave teens who struggle with depression with no energy or motivation to clean their rooms.
- Depressed teens often avoid social situations. That means they’re staying in their room all the time, leading to more mess.
- A sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness often comes with depression. As a result, teens may feel that there’s no reason to expend effort to keep their personal space neat and organized.
- Disregarding personal grooming and cleanliness is a common symptom of depression. For teens with messy rooms, their environment becomes an extension of their inability to practice self-care.
- Having a hard time concentrating is another symptom of depression. This lack of focus can make it difficult for an adolescent to stay on task and get their room cleaned.
- Feelings of failure and self-criticism typically accompany depression. Hence, teens might feel that they don’t deserve to have a clean, organized room. Living in messy spaces might be a subconscious way of punishing themselves.
- Binge eating and other disrupted eating habits often accompany depression. If teens are holed up in their rooms, snacking late at night or throughout the day, messiness is unavoidable.
Can a Messy Teenager’s Room Cause Depression?
The messy room–depression cycle goes both ways. Hence, not only does depression result in teen messiness, a messy room can create stress and other negative emotions in teens as well as young adults. A review of research on the results of household chaos showed that messiness in the home consistently led to negative outcomes for children and adolescents.
There is also a link between anxiety and messy rooms. Studies have shown that clutter produces anxiety as well as making people feel depressed. One study of mothers living in cluttered homes found that they had higher-than-average levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, living in a messy room means that a teenager’s nervous system is always in a state of low-grade fight-or-flight.
Research using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has found that disorganization and clutter have a negative impact on the way our brains work. Moreover, messiness also influences our emotions, behavior, relationships, and even our eating habits. Research shows that we’re more likely to eat junk food when we live in a chaotic environment.
As a result, 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. Hence, the act of cleaning your space can actually help reverse a bad mood.
How to Deal with Your Teenager’s Messy Room
How to get your teen to clean their room is an age-old dilemma for parents. But as we’ve learned, helping teens keep their rooms clean can support their well-being and mental health. So it’s worth the effort to help teens dig out of the old pizza crusts, wet towels, and piles of tossed-off clothing.
Here are five ways to help teens clean up and feel better:
- Make cleaning a family project. The whole family can help each other clean, one room at a time. Or each person can clean their own room, and then meet in the shared spaces of the home to continue the cleaning project together.
- Clean to music. All your family members can contribute favorite songs to create a playlist that will serve as the soundtrack for tidying up. No one’s allowed to stop cleaning until the music stops!
- Take it one step at a time. Encourage teens to start small and set aside 10 minutes daily to clear out one area of their room. It might take longer before the mess is gone, but the process helps to build a regular habit of tidying up.
- Negotiate and collaborate. Even if a messy room is really out of hand, an adolescent might feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. Make a plan and offer to help. Start by determining what needs to be done and who will do what. For example, if your teen is willing to gather up dirty clothes and bring them to the laundry room, a parent might agree to do the wash.
- Inspire cleaning with some new additions. Incentivize cleaning by letting teens choose a few new items for their room once everything’s off the floor and bed. Adding a comfy chair, cool posters, or a bunch of colorful pillows might give teens more motivation to maintain a clean room.
Treatment for the Underlying Causes of Messy Room Depression
In conclusion, a messy room, depression, and teen challenges often go together. If teens with messy rooms have other symptoms of depression, such as sadness, self-harm, or substance abuse, it’s essential to schedule a teen depression screening.
If teen messiness appears to be the result of hopelessness, lack of motivation, and/or social isolation, treatment of underlying depression may be the right next step. Contact the Admissions experts at Newport Academy today to find out about our model of care and our residential and outpatient locations nationwide.
Frequently Asked Questions About Messiness and Mental Health
Is it normal for a teenager to have a messy room?
Teenagers are famous for their messy rooms. This can be the result of an immature prefrontal cortex, the organization center of the brain. Or it can be a sign of an underlying condition like depression.
Is being messy a symptom of depression?
Being messy is not necessarily a symptom of depression. However, it can result from symptoms of depression such as hopelessness, lack of motivation, or social isolation.
Why does depression make it hard to clean your room?
Depression causes a number of symptoms that make it hard to clean your room. Fatigue makes it difficult to do anything, never mind a chore like cleaning. A sense of hopelessness can make it feel like there’s no point in cleaning. And the isolation of depression means you may be spending more time in your room, creating more of a mess.
Is being messy a mental illness?
Being messy is not a mental illness. But it can be one of the signs of depression.
What is depression nesting?
The term “depression nesting” arose with the isolation of the pandemic, as most people spent all their time at home. However, it can also result from the self-imposed isolation that is a symptom of depression.
BMC Health. 2020 Apr; 20: 513.
Psychol Sci. 2013 Sep;24(9):1860–7.
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Aug; 69(8): 832–841.
J Neurosci. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97.
Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Jan;36(1):71–81.