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How cleaning helps young adults launch

In an era when parents focus on academics and sports, emerging adults often don’t know how how to do their laundry or handle a mop

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Parents watching their kids launch into college or a first apartment are likely keeping a shopping list and mental checklist of must-dos. But a successful transition isn’t just about having money or knowing how to stay safe or where to buy groceries and gas.

An often overlooked question is even more basic: Do you know how to clean the bathroom and do your own laundry?

If that question seems humorous or juvenile, it’s not.

Emerging adults who can manage their own space and have skills to organize and clean will have less anxiety and depression and a greater sense of confidence and mastery — not to mention an easier time finding their keys so they can get to an important meeting or class.

While 92% of college students recognize that they are at their best physically and mentally when their room is clean, more than 7 in 10 said they were less than prepared to clean on their own when they got to college, according to a survey by the American Cleaning Institute and Wakefield Research.

Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of the American Cleaning Institute, the trade association for the cleaning products supply chain, said it’s important for young adults to not only know how to clean, but why it’s important to their overall health. And he noted that 71% of roommates said they argue over how to clean.

Even if you’re not arguing, relationships are less strained in clean surroundings, said Sansoni.

Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” is not surprised that young people struggle with housework when they leave the nest. She said a lot of today’s emerging adults were given all kinds of expensive toys and opportunities, with a great push to help them achieve, but were not taught basics like how to care for themselves and their possessions.

“The risk for kids is it leaves them with a sense of being dependent, rather than free to really fly and be independent,” said Walfish. “These kids have been so pushed to academically perform and they feel equipped to get good grades, but can’t do basics to take care of themselves.

“There’s a sense of being lost in the world to manage and take care of the basics of hygiene and environmental cleanliness,” she said.

Not to mention how young adults might feel if a roommate has that kind of skill they lack. She said she hopes that kids will trade knowledge for the sake of health and their relationship: “I’ll help you study for your exam if you help me with my laundry.” But often it’s too hard for competitive kids to admit what they don’t know, she added.

Walfish said it’s best to get kids doing chores when they’re toddlers. Too often, parents — especially moms — find it easier to do tasks themselves. But they’re not helping build strong future adults.

And if you’ve neglected those lessons, it’s a good idea to give the kids a crash course on their way out the door to school or work or just adult life.

The mental aspect

The link between clean environments and mental health is well documented — over many years. For example, a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2009 found that “the way people describe their homes may reflect whether their time at home feels restorative or stressful.” The researchers analyzed how dual-income spouses spoke about cluttered areas of their homes as they gave researchers a tour.

They found that wives with higher stressful-home scores had flatter cortisol cycles during the day. The stress hormone didn’t go down, and they were more depressed. The researchers called it a “profile associated with adverse health outcomes, whereas women with higher restorative-home scores had steeper cortisol slopes” and were less depressed. They said the finding held up even after they controlled for marital satisfaction and neuroticism.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Ryback wrote of a study at Indiana University that found that “people with clean houses are healthier than people with messy houses.” The researchers focused on the homes of nearly 1,000 Blacks ages 49-65, choosing that population because they have increased risk of heart disease, he wrote. “Participants who kept their homes clean were healthier and more active than those who didn’t. In fact, house cleanliness was even more of a predictor for physical health than neighborhood walkability.”

Very Well Mind reports that clutter lessens focus and creates both confusion and contention, though Walfish notes that some people thrive in a certain amount of clutter. The same cannot be said of living in a house where housework isn’t done.

Anxiety is related to control. And housework is a powerful way to exert some control. That’s important to note with young adults, because many of them are already stressed. Anxiety and depression among teens is very common.

“When people get anxious, most try to control their environment, but if the level of anxiety gets too high, people give up and get depressed,” said Walfish. Among her high-anxiety patients, she said that homes are either spotless or a total mess.

When people wake up in an organized environment, they are more eager to get out of bed and face the day, she added. Waking up surrounded by chaos creates a temptation to hide under the covers.

And the more disorganized one gets, the harder it is to turn things around, including the stress.

Kamri McKnight, a 19-year-old junior at Brigham Young University who came from Dallas and is studying neuroscience, said she grew up doing chores in an organized home, but not all of her roommates have had that experience — and it sometimes strained relationships.

McKnight likes learning in a clean environment so being organized and tidy at home helps her mental health and how well she does in school, she told the Deseret News.

As a kid, she was not thrilled to be handed a mop or assigned a chore, but it’s “now something that I really value,” she said. She’s happy to know how to maintain her space.

Even so, she said when she moved to college and was doing her laundry, it was sometimes tricky without a parent around to ask questions.

In her first adult housing situation, McKnight had four roommates — and learned another valuable cleaning lesson: Housework is a good team-building exercise, with lots of lessons in cooperation.

What makes life easier

In the survey, half of respondents said they didn’t have time to clean and slightly more said they didn't feel motivated. More than 20% said a lack of cleaning supplies or knowledge about how to clean stops them from tidying up.

Here’s a piece of good news for folks who do clean. Tasks like washing the dishes can be a mindfulness task if you focus on the moment and stay in the present, according to a study in the journal Mindfulness.

Researchers wrote that “mindful dishwashers” saw increases in mindfulness, awareness and positive affect, including generating inspiring ideas, as well as fewer negatives like nervousness. They also were less prone to overestimate how long the task took, which can make it feel like drudgery. “Implications for these findings are diverse and suggest that mindfulness, as well as positive affect could be cultivated through intentionally engaging in a broad range of activities.”

The American Cleaning Institute has produced a resource called “Class of Clean” that includes a move-in checklist, a guide to stain removal, a handout on doing laundry and others aids to help young people learn a lesson they might have missed. The guide doesn’t promote products, but rather explains some cleaning techniques.