For lots of teens, a messy room is a badge of honor. Maybe it’s the Bed that Will Not Be Made, or the Laundry Pile that Virtually Crawls. Teens will be the first to point out that unless there’s a bacterial epidemic, mess isn’t a safety hazard, unless you count the likelihood of periodic parent explosions. And besides, kids will tell you, they actually love their grimy rooms. Is it any wonder that so many parents just wait for college and then hire a fumigator?

Teenager Jessi Morgenstern-Colon started out that way, with one important difference: her mother is the famed professional organizer Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out. As in most families, mother-child dialogue didn’t work so well at first, but then they had a breakthrough: a problem-solving “consultation” about Jessi’s room. From there, Jessi moved on to calendars, closets, backpack … and coauthorship of her own book, Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens.

 So what’s their secret? Jessi and her mom offer this three-stage process, which can apply to any organizing job:

  • Analyze. All too often, people jump into organizing by tearing up a space and ending up with a worse mess than before. Or, they'll buy the trendiest new storage boxes, only to find they’re the wrong size. So, says Jessi, the first step in organizing is: just look around and think! What is working in the space? What’s the problem? And, thinking ahead, what is your “Essential 7”—the seven most important items that you absolutely must keep in this area, no matter what? Parents need to be extra careful about the “Essential 7”—these are your teen’s choice, and you need to be calm and matter-of-fact if the list includes iPod accesories or cherished hot rod posters you’d love to trade for dictionaries. What’s important is that your kid is setting priorities for their things and handling them responsibly.
  • Strategize. Feeling stuck? Think about kindergarten! “Walk into any kindergarten classroom in the world,” say Jessi and her mom, “and you will behold the perfect model of organization.” There’s a zone for every activity: building blocks, snacks, arts and crafts, and reading. This is what you want in your closet, desk, or room…modified for your own life. What’s your plan? You might even want to draw a diagram at this stage.
  • Attack! Now, and only now, are you ready to get down and dirty. Work with one “zone” at a time, and start with one large storage box for things to keep, one for things to give away, and one garbage bag for stuff to throw out completely. When you’ve finished sorting, you’re ready to follow your strategy plan and assign a home for everything—which means you should start by carrying broken junk to the garbage or recycling can. Then you can enjoy the step you’ve been waiting for: placing your good stuff in good order, where you can reach and enjoy it when you want.

Especially if your child’s room has been messy for a while, don’t expect this process to happen overnight. You’ll want to break it down into manageable chunks, tackling one piece at a time. In the end, promise Jessi and her mom, the results will be well worth the trouble. For Jessi, organizing has ended up advancing the very independence many teens seek through mess. As she puts it, “An organized room tells the world that you have it all together. My mom is more comfortable in giving me my space and freedom because she knows I can take care of myself.”