“At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I’ve hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.” ~ Nicole Krauss.
Hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and complicated grief coalesce to create an avalanche of chaos. I hear stories of children who beg their mother or father to not engage in behaviors that, even to a child, seem out-of-control. What are children to do about their parents who hoard?
Hoarding, as a diagnosis did not exist in the DSM IV. Hoarding was listed as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. In the DSM V it was removed from association with obsessive compulsive disorder and is now viewed as a distinct disorder of its own known as hoarding disorder. One of the reasons given for its move to a new classification is that it did not respond to treatments that were useful in treating obsessive compulsive disorder.
Children are vulnerable to whatever rests in front of them. At times they are asked to deal with violence. Other times they are asked to accept neglect and invisibility. Still other times they endure the death and dying of a parent. And, there are small children who know at a very young age that there is something terrifying about a trip to the used clothing and furniture store, the discount markets, and the garage sales that dot the community landscape every Saturday morning at daybreak.
Children often accompany a hoarding parent on one or many of these excursions. Their home is already a dangerous maze that must be carefully negotiated to determine an exit. School supplies are long buried. Treasured toys are four feet under and everyday items such as shampoo may exist in cartons stacked to the ceiling of the bathroom. Clothes do not get laundered and the bath tub is in use. This is where the cases of tomato soup with rice are stored. Newspapers spanning two decades now take up residence in the shower stall.
Hoarding behavior affects everyone in the family. There are risks for children of hoarders just like the risks for those with other diagnostic categories.
Here are some risks for children of hoarders:
Family issues including legal issues around law suits, divorce, custody, visitation, and other legal matters.
Loss of the family. The child may be taken from the family and placed in foster care or with a relative. Child Protective Services may intervene.
Physical risks due to towers of things and unsafe storage of things. Slips, falls, and running into things are common especially when a child gets up in the night. Fire hazard is another risk and toxic fumes from fires are more likely with such a number of items stored beyond what is referred to as safe fire load.
Emotional risks include shame, embarrassment, isolation, helplessness, resentment, acting out, stress, frustrations, secret keeping, torn alliances, exposure to fights and anger, lack of trust, anger, depression, feelings of abandonment, psychological distress, relational problems, and making many sacrifices for the hoarding parent.
Children of hoarders do not invite their friends over to play. They hesitate going to a friend’s house for fear of hearing jokes made about their parent.
There is a high risk and potential for modeling parent hoarding behavior.
There may be over attention given to keeping tabs on one’s possessions.
If you know a child who is being parented by a hoarder it is important to be sensitive, try to advocate with sensitive-minded teachers for additional support at school, and consider volunteering with an agency that assists hoarders in getting help and using the 3 R’s (reduce, re-use, recycle).
The child who has a hoarding parent is dealing with considerable loss and grief. Be available to talk.
Thank you and be well.
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
Understanding Loss and Grief https://rowman.com/ISBN/978-1-4422-2274-8
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Last reviewed: 20 Aug 2013