How parents can salvage part of an adult child’s bedroom

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(Bianca Jelezniac/Illustration for The Washington Post)
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Nellie Bristol has been doing her work on global health policy from the loft of her home in Falls Church, Va., for several years without issue. But when her husband joined her in the home office during the pandemic, things took a turn for the worse.

She decamped to her 27-year-old son’s former bedroom, which has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the backyard. Her son, however, stays home occasionally and she doesn’t want him to feel out of place. She kept her bed, but flipped it against the wall as a daybed, and she bought a small Hardwood Artisans secretary’s desk that can close when he’s visiting. His books, diplomas and trinkets are still on the shelves, along with his framed photos of sailboats and Wisconsin’s Madeline Island, an annual family destination.

The setup worked well; when her son is home, Bristol closes the office and works elsewhere. Children “like having a familiar place where they can still come back and still have their stuff,” she says. In addition, she likes to be surrounded by her memories while she works. “It keeps him close to me.”

It’s almost a cliché: kids leave for college, their first job, or their first apartment, and their parents or guardians immediately turn their bedrooms into craft rooms or home gyms. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. It is possible to take advantage of the extra space without erasing all the signs of the previous occupant.

“You should enjoy your home as much as possible,” says Ann Cariola, an interior designer based outside of Chicago who specializes in helping empty nests. “Why not make it ideal for you and your child so you don’t lose those years of fun or functionality around the house?”

My nest is empty, but the stuff remains. Why is decluttering so heavy?

Take a beat. Wait about a month after they move in before making big changes to your kids’ rooms, Cariola says. You don’t want them to feel like you immediately washed your hands of it. Also, their new adventure might not be the right decision and they might go back to live or stay with you.

The waiting period is also an opportunity to plan the use of space and figure out what you need, says Maryland-based interior designer Laura Hodges. Is exercise important? Then maybe you want a Murphy bed for more floor space. Are you going to take Zoom calls there? It might be time to rethink that Baby Yoda poster.

Collaboration is essential. Changing a nursery without consulting your child could make the process unnecessarily emotional, Hodges says. If you want to paint the walls or change the bedspread, involve your kids in choosing colors or patterns, and include them in decisions about keepsakes and wall art. “It’s those little things that make them feel like they’re still part of the family, they’re still welcome, it’s still their space, it’s still their sanctuary,” says Hodges.

Incorporating your child’s favorite aesthetic, like mid-century modern or bohemian, can also ensure that the space always feels special to them, Hodges says. And keep a place for them to do the things they love, she says, like a nook to read or a nook to paint.

Maintain a bedroom feel. Be sure to keep the original purpose of the room in mind and stick to the idea that it’s still a bedroom, at least some of the time.

“If you walk into the room and you’re like, ‘Oh, this still looks like Mary Jo’s room,’ I think you’ve done well,” Cariola says. “If you walk into the room and think, ‘Oh, this is a craft room,’ you’ve probably taken up too much space.”

This means above all keeping a bed for your child. If you need to maximize space, MA Allen, a designer based in Raleigh, North Carolina, recommends getting a daybed with a trundle bed. And if you’re keeping your child’s original bed, changing the bedding is a cost-effective update, Cariola says.

If you’re using the room as a desk, Hodges recommends buying a small folding desk that can be tucked away or a secretary, like Bristol’s, that can close. If you’re using your child’s desk, take a picture of it, then wrap it up and put it under the bed. You can check out the photo when the child comes home if you want to stage it as it was left. You can also turn a child’s closet into a desk by adding an electrical outlet and a built-in desk, Allen says. Bring a closet where they can put their clothes when they are home.

For an exercise area, Hodges recommends using small, collapsible equipment, such as a rowing machine, that is easy to store. Keep weights on mounted shelves and use wall bars with resistance bands to save floor space. You can also place rolling bins under the bed to store yoga mats and other small items. And if there’s a large walk-in closet, consider adding a pocket door and keeping an exercise bike there, Allen says. Whatever you do, keep all the gym equipment in one place, says Hodges. If weights or bands start drifting across the room, it won’t look like a bedroom anymore.

To maximize storage in your child’s empty bedroom, don’t toss pieces of furniture haphazardly, like old dressers or chests, Cariola says. Instead, opt for small pieces with storage, such as a bench or chest, and use wheeled bins under beds and dressers.

Declutter together. Reinventing your child’s bedroom is a great time to declutter. “They’re maybe 40, and you walk into their room, and it always looks like they might be coming home from high school football practice,” Cariola says. “[That] is not useful at all. [It’s] almost like a little sanctuary for children.

Include them in the decluttering process. “It’s usually the little tchotchkes and things that are harder to deal with, because often those have some sort of emotional reaction from the child,” says Hodges. You don’t need to keep all of their trophies, for example; determine which is the most important and emblematic of their experience. This reduces clutter and also makes this trophy more special.

Hodges recommends looking at each item and determining if it’s functional, beautiful, or meaningful. If the answer is no, throw it away. If the kids really care about keeping lots of items, suggest that they store them where they live, Cariola says.

Cleverly display your memories. To incorporate your child’s personality and childhood into the room while maintaining a sophisticated space, carefully display the items you keep.

Frame photos from a semester abroad or posters of school games to display on a wall or shelf. And keepsake boxes can elegantly conceal important childhood memories, as well as papers or office supplies you might need to store.

Bristol used this approach to redesign her son’s bedroom, retaining the memories and feel without keeping it stuck in the past. “It’s the house we were all in together, and it was a very special moment for me,” Bristol said. “Being able to keep those memories is good.”

Mimi Montgomery is a writer and editor at DC

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