Children & Discipline, Parenting Teenagers

My 13-year-old doesn't pick up a single thing

Published: 14 Feb 2017
My 13-year-old doesn't pick up a single thing

Most parents can relate to having a lazy teenager. And while laziness does seem to be common characteristic of teenagers, there are some things we can do to teach them responsibility and cleanliness without harming the relationship.

Hi Dr Justin,

I wondered if you had any solutions for a problem that’s driving me to despair:

My 13-year-old doesn’t pick up a single thing. Swimmers, towel, clothes, dishes, glasses of water, sun cream … every single thing (and I’m not exaggerating) is left exactly where she takes it off or uses it. She even regularly fails to flush the toilet.

I have tried gentle encouragement, asking why she doesn’t pick stuff up, taking away technology when she leaves stuff lying around, talking about how we’re a family and how we need to help each other by taking care of our own responsibilities, leaving it all around the house then pointing out every item - even plates crawling with ants - at the end of the day.

Do you have a simple one line answer that’s not “she’ll grow out of it”?

Her laziness (although it’s not even really that because it doesn’t even seem to register) is making me constantly irritated and is affecting our relationship. She’s delightful in so many other ways.


Dr Justin responds:

My typical responses include gentle encouragement, talking about the need to help one another, and pointing out issues with a simple invitation to help. You seem to have covered these ones quite nicely. Sometimes our children lack the motivation to help and so these approaches fail to grab their attention. The kids merely shrug and say, “whatever”.

You’ve added some punishments: removing technology privileges and leaving the mess for her to notice. It is not surprising at all that these haven’t worked. Punishment rarely achieves more than short-term compliance. All that happens is that children become motivated to avoid punishment by being sneaky or dishonest.

I’m going to suggest two alternative approaches that will help you to feel good about your relationship with your daughter, and will also help you to get more things done.

First, when it all gets too much, offer to help your daughter. This will give you the chance to spend a few minutes together, it will ensure that the job gets done to your satisfaction, and it will be a surefire way to get her involved. This approach is also nice because it is non-punitive. There’s no punishment or ill-feeling. You simply suggest that things need a tidy-up and then hop to it, together.

Some people might argue that at the age of 13, you shouldn’t need to be tidying up after your daughter – or with her. She should be responsible enough to see the mess and deal with it. She shouldn’t need reminding or helping. While I can understand and even sympathise with this argument, I feel it is possibly a little unfair. After all, even as adults, are there any things that we sometimes choose not to do, ignore, or forget about? Maybe it’s the rubbish bin, the dirty washing, the dishwasher, or keeping devices out of our rooms. Sometimes we need a reminder or a bit of help to get things done. So be compassionate and helpful, and use this time together to enjoy each other – and patiently teach responsibility and cleanliness.

Second, if this approach doesn’t work for you, it might be worthwhile to sit down with your daughter (when neither of you are stressed) and discuss the issue. Let her know that you are unsatisfied and that if she chooses to ignore your reminders, you will simply go into her room and place all of her mess into a basket. You will leave the basket in her cupboard. It will be up to her to find things and deal with the repercussions. You will not be angry or upset. You will simply be tidying things up. She can empty the basket when it becomes important enough to her to do so.

This approach is a little more forceful and we want to be careful that we are not disrespectful as we do this. A clear rationale should be explained, and opportunities for problem-solving explored. But this might help you feel that things are a little tidier.

Finally, if it bothers you so much but it doesn’t bother her, I’d gently suggest simply cleaning things up. We all value different things and this may be one of those things that your daughter simply doesn’t care about at all. If so, it’s up to you. But don’t let it ruin the relationship.

You don’t want to hear me say it, but there’s a good chance that given enough time, she’ll grow out of it. Most likely around the same time that she moves out of home. Until then, patience, reminders, and working together will be your best options.

21 Days to a Happier Family

Read more about teaching children responsibility and getting them involved with chores in Chapter 15 of my book 21 Days to a Happier Family.

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