Help! My Daughter’s House Is a Filthy Disaster, and She Won’t Do Anything About It. (2024)

Dear Prudence

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

Advice by Jenée Desmond-Harris

Help! My Daughter’s House Is a Filthy Disaster, and She Won’t Do Anything About It. (1)

Each week in the Wednesday column, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays.

Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer; thanks to Ms. Clean, BikerChickTexs, and Gerette for their ideas!

Dear Prudence,

My wife and I are concerned about my daughter and son-in-law’s housekeeping. The physical clutter of their house borders on what you see in an episode of hoarders. They are not the cleanest of people when it comes to their surroundings, either—leaving food, plates, or half-empty glasses around everywhere. This has attracted insects. Now they have problems with birds nesting in their air conditioners, causing bird mites to infest the house. The general filth has caused my daughter to break out on her face. We are worried for their health and safety but also for our granddaughter who is growing up in this.

When we confront our daughter about this she insists it is all her husband’s fault or because she is too busy. But we can’t fathom why they cannot pick up ANYTHING. We can’t visit them because there is nowhere to sit anymore. This is affecting their health and their social lives. We are afraid to confront her or them both further because they get very defensive about it. I am loath to lend or give money to help the matter, as I fear it will just revert in a few weeks or months. How can we approach them and get them to help themselves?

—Can’t See the Floor for the Mess

Dear Can’t See,

I won’t get your hopes up. Even after asking readers for help responding to this letter, I don’t have a proposed solution that offers a guaranteed clear path to a clean home for your daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter and a sense of peace about their health for you. But I do have some ideas and insights to share (more than I had when I first read about this really difficult situation, at least!).

First, I think it’s good that your daughter is at least aware that the house is a disaster. Her blaming the situation on her husband shows that she knows there is, in fact, a situation.
This creates space for you to offer to help get rid of the insects and birds without offending her. A couple of people suggested that this might be a one-time job that could possibly make everything else feel less overwhelming.

“I am loath to lend or give money to help the matter, as I fear it will just revert in a few weeks or months.” I understand this to an extent, but I think it’s worth helping to arrange for an intensive clean and de-birding at least once to start, especially if LW has never offered help before. I don’t want LW to feel like they’re on the hook to keep the house in good shape forever going forward, but it’s common for someone to let a situation get out of control and then become too overwhelmed to deal with it. It’s possible that getting back to a good baseline will empower LW’s daughter and SIL to feel like they can get the house into a more manageable state more consistently. They’ll probably never be especially tidy people, but I think with some support they’ll be able to get to a place where their house is consistently



Has the house always been this way? Or, is the development new? Is there some stress going on at work, health issue, death in the family, or other? Undiagnosed executive function issue? This sounds like it could be a mental health issue. I would invite your daughter and SIL over for dinner. Ask them how you can be helpful.

Can you babysit your granddaughter? Find a removal service for the bird and mites? Would they like you to help them find a therapist or primary care doctor? Pay for a resume writer to help find a new job? Hiring a housekeeper one time isn’t the solution. Figuring out what the underlying cause to the behavior is. And, be a safe space for your granddaughter in the future.


Once the home is free of unwanted animal life, there’s very likely still going to be a mess. And that’s when you’ll really need to tread carefully—and probably start to embrace how complicated an issue you’re dealing, how many factors may be contributing to it, with and how little power you actually have here.

As a professional home organizer with a strong background in mental illness, I can tell the letter writer that “confronting” her daughter and/or son-in-law is never going to be productive. If she really wants to help, she needs to be compassionate. Even if she would never in a million years let her home devolve to that state, she needs to express understanding and caring to her daughter, not judgment and disgust. Has LW taken the time to ask about what else is going on in their lives? Has this been a drastic change from the state of their home previously? Is there some stressor that factors into the mess—financial concerns, job stress, marital tension? Are they extremely messy and just don’t care or do they feel beaten down by the chaos? Are they unwilling to give up even pure garbage? A hoarder (like my own mother) will fight you on throwing away an old grocery store circular.

If this is situational hoarding—feeling overwhelmed after having a baby or other major life changes that “created” the mess and now they feel stuck—then helping out with funds to hire an organizer and cleaner to bring the house back to neutral would be a great way to show love and caring. They may need occasional professional touch ups but otherwise they will (hopefully) maintain the new order. However if this is something that has been growing and persisting for years, if her daughter and/or son-in-law are actual hoarders, they need professional help to figure out what’s going on between their ears before they can address what’s growing under the couch. Hoarding is a mental illness, coming from anxiety. Depression can lead to people giving up on the state of their surroundings. Unfortunately, in either case, the state of their environment just compounds the anxiety/depression. Without addressing the illness, there’s really no way to move forward. And if the LW is unable to speak with her daughter lovingly and with an eye to helping not judging, then she just needs to follow Thumper’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”


I think the most important part of that last reader’s advice is that a confrontation is probably not what’s called for. That is, unless things devolve to a point where you truly believe your granddaughter is in physical danger—in that case, you could try to reason with your daughter about potentially getting custody, or escalate things to the authorities. Perhaps you can seek an outside, professional perspective on the line between “gross” and “unsafe” and agree with your wife about who you will contact if that line is crossed. I don’t think a breakout—which can be caused by any number of things—is evidence that it has at this point. But having this plan could keep you from constantly stressing about the worst-case scenario.In the meantime, you can ask questions to try to get a sense of the issues that underlie the mess, and whether they have solutions that you can (gently) offer to help solve. You can’t “get them” to do anything, but with patience, curiosity, generosity, and a delicate touch, you may be able to support them in solving their real problems, which are much bigger than dirty plates and glasses in the living room.

Then, the hardest part: Start to plan for what a peaceful relationship with your daughter and her family will look like if things don’t change in a meaningful way. Obviously, your granddaughter is better off with a filthy-but-not-dangerous house and a loving, present grandmother (who maybe has a spare room for her to use!) than she is with that same house and an estranged grandmother. Maybe that means embracing that you’ll always meet outside their home. Maybe it also means sincerely seeing them as more than hoarders, remembering that everyone has struggles in life, some are just less visible than others.

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Help! My Daughter’s House Is a Filthy Disaster, and She Won’t Do Anything About It. (2024)
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