It is time to tell you about my Special Neuro-Scientific Theory Pertaining to the Causes of the Untidy Teenage Bedroom. I touched on it in the new edition of Blame My Brain but I was not able to show you the photos especially commissioned from Photowitch, for a talk I did last year.
Actually, the whole Theory came about because of being a children's writer. I'd been asked to go on the Simon Mayo Drive-time programme. "We're talking about untidy teenage bedrooms. Can you give us any scientific reasons to explain them?" Well, you can't go on a programme which asks if you have any scientific reasons and say you haven't got any, so, in the 30 minutes I had to prepare, I came up with my SNTPCUTB.
I used to think (and said so in the original Blame My Brain, back in 2005) that teenage bedrooms were irrelevant, boring, trivial. Wrong. Teenage bedrooms (some of which are not at all untidy, by the way) are both a mirror and metaphor for their brains and also a beautiful (yes, really) illustration of one of the most interesting things about how their brains work.
Let's look at those photos by Photowitch.
Here is a teenage bedroom when it's just been tidied and the teenager isn't in it.
Now see the same room half an hour after the teenager has come back from school:
You can see many things going on - eating, working (an open physics book, anyway), socialising (the emails and the phone), beautifying (the nail varnish - dangerously close to that laptop, as is the drink, says my fretting adult brain which is looking ahead to catastrophe...). Note, also, clothing removed and not put away. I'll come to that in a minute, because it's central.
Now, see the same room later that evening:
*tears hair out* *weeps a little at the stirred memory*
*Calms down and remembers the Special Neuro-Scientific Theory Pertaining to the Causes of the Untidy Teenage Bedroom*
Here's the thing, and it's the thing about all untidy rooms: an untidy room happens because of a large number of small acts and in every case the act is the same - not putting something away, but dropping or leaving it where it falls. It's an act and choice which kowtows to the desire of the moment and does not look ahead to future consequences. The desire of the moment in each case is to do something more fun than putting something away (eat something, email someone, sit on your bed, paint your nails, check facebook) and the future consequence in each case is, "Eventually, my room will look horrendous and my mum/dad will come in and frown and there will be a big and annoying argument and either I will have to put it away or else, if I'm lucky, my mum/dad will, especially if I make the place so bad that they take pity on me or give up and in fact I could even play the verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown card, which I've played before to great effect."
Except that, in fact, the teenager isn't even thinking all that stuff because it's way too boring, as it is the future and is overshadowed by the much more interesting pull of the present.
And that is one of the core psychologies of adolescence. People talk (rightly) about the fact that the teenage prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed and say (rightly) that we need that pfc in order to make good decisions and judgments about the future, but what people often don't realise is that, also, teenagers have been shown to be more strongly drawn by the emotional pull of the present. They know very well what the sensible thing to do is but it's harder for them to choose to do it. They can easily brush away the future in a fatalist kind of way.
So the untidy teenage bedroom becomes a lovely (well, OK, not lovely) illustration of this psychology.
There are some simpler reasons for the untidy bedrooms, and all the reasons probably apply:
- The fact that teenagers have to do everything in a small space.
- It's a safe way to rebel. And, dear parents, if your teenagers are going to annoy you and rebel, wouldn't you rather they did it like this, than in a whole load of other much scarier ways? Rebellion is an important aspect of becoming independent and some teenagers do it or need to do it more than others.
- They know that, in the grand scheme of the other stressful things in their life, it really doesn't matter.
Before I came up with my Special Neuro-Scientific Theory Pertaining to the Causes of the Untidy Teenage Bedroom, I did wonder if it was simply a case of chaotic brain = chaotic room, but I have far too much respect for the teenage brain to go down that disrespectful route. But they can still blame their brains...
The new updated edition of Blame My Brain is out this month, with an ebook version. There's a competition going on on my blog - I've had masses (hundreds!) of entries from individual children, teenagers and adults, but would love more school entries.
Do you have a teenager? I'm conducting an anonymous survey for 13-18s and I'd love as many responses as possible. It's for a book I'm writing on teenage stress. The survey takes 3-4 minutes and adults are welcome to check the questions first.
I'm also looking for adults to fill in an anonymous survey about cyber-bullying, for the same book. Please pass these links on!