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Children of Hoarders Have Problems With Stuff

How does hoarding affect kids?

The dining room table is piled high with newspapers, ski boots, granola bars and craft supplies. You have to carve a path through the crates of toys, office supplies and books just to reach it. The place goes beyond clutter. This is the home of a hoarder.

Popular TV shows have made images like this mainstream. We’re all familiar with the signs of hoarding. We may even know someone who stuffs their house to the gills to fill a hole in their life. Hoarding is a serious mental illness, and hard to identify and treat.

The whole scene is sad enough when the hoarder lives alone. But what about children raised in these homes? How does a childhood dominated by clutter shape a person?

The New York Times asked this question of several adult children of hoarders, in a piece on what happens when they fly the cluttered nest.

Some of them become neat freaks. Some of them suffer from the clutter bug just like their parents. Most have a complex relationship with stuff. It’s hard for children of hoarders to know the real value of an item: they may collect empty bottles in case they need them someday, or (at the other extreme) throw away their graduate diploma in a fit of minimalist zeal.

Children growing up in a too-cluttered home also often suffer a lack of housekeeping skills. They don’t know how often to wash bedsheets, for example. (This was the NYT example. I don’t know how often to wash bedsheets, either. Still, I can readily believe that children of hoarders are even worse off than I am when it comes to housekeeping clue.)

Hoarders’ kids gather in online support groups like Children Of Hoarders, where they share stories, commiserate about the challenges of having hoarder parents and share practical housekeeping tips. These support networks help them get over the shame and confusion of having grown up in houses they were ashamed to let their friends visit.

In addition to having complex relationships with their stuff, these kids have strained relationships with their hoarding parents. The women intereviewed for this NYT article had gone long stretches – in some cases years – without visiting their moms. They didn’t want to be in the houses they grew up in, so they also drifted into distant relationships with their parents. In one case, the hoarding mother had shut her daughter out after the house hit a certain level of unbearable.

The takeaway here: if you have a problem with hoarding, recognize it and get help. Even if you have a pretty normal house, getting rid of some clutter almost always makes life better. Now is the perfect time to do it, too. This weekend is Give Your Stuff Away Day.

Photo: John Pannell

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