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Children of Hoarders

Who Hoards, and Why?

This post is not to be confused with the fantastic and very helpful online website titled Children of Hoarders (COH), but rather my observations in dealing with actual children of hoarders.

Not many people know what goes on behind the closed doors of hoarders. However, because of the work we do with Clutter Trucker, I get a glimpse of people’s lives in a very personal manner. I see the interaction between parent and child, the love, the anger, the worry and the patience it takes to help hoarders regain control.

Over the years, I have noticed it is not uncommon for my hoarder clients to have raised some of the most dynamic individuals I have met. These children have PhD’s, degrees, and they are successful, friendly, compassionate and thriving members of society.

Anger, Frustration, Fear

Children of Hoarders

The children are sometimes the ones who reach out to me first. They may be angry, disappointed, fearful and frustrated when they talk to me. However, when handled in a compassionate, non-threatening, nonjudgmental manner, we have succeeded in helping their parents gain freedom from the clutter and chaos.

Often hoarders have a stereotype associated with them as being crazy, lazy, dirty or just downright strange. This cannot be further from the truth! Yes, they may have a disorder that manifests itself into accumulating a lot of “stuff”, but so many of them have done a fantastic job raising their children.

While we clean out basements with the children’s art projects, writing and report cards, I find myself regularly praising my hoarders on their parenting skills. Parenting is not easy, and I am certain it is not easy when battling the issue of hoarding.

Interestingly enough, it is the grandchildren that sometimes prompts my clients to get help! What a blessing for both of them. Let the babies be the motivation for a healthy, clean environment to add years onto their lives!

What is “Hoarding Disorder”?

Hoarding Disorder

Psychologists say hoarding disorder affects sufferers in profound ways. Mainly, the condition is an ongoing problem that causes people to keep all their possessions because they are simply unable to throw anything out.

People who have hoarding disorder get anxious and experience great distress if they even think about getting rid of the items they own. The things in question are often of little or no actual value and are the types of belongings that most people discard, like damaged clothing, broken appliances, and outdated paperwork.

Hoarding disorder typically results in a person’s home becoming extremely cluttered and cramped. In most cases, the condition begins to appear during late teen years or early adulthood and lasts until old age or until the person gets treatment.

If Your Parents Are Hoarders

What should you do if your parents are hoarders? Many middle-aged and older folks have “hoarding tendencies” even when they don’t suffer from a full-blown case of the disorder. Even so, if your parents tend to accumulate an excessive amount of stuff in their home to the point that it’s an obvious problem, there’s a lot you can do.

Here are the most common ways that adults can help their parents who are hoarders, or on the way to becoming hoarders:

  • Have a face-to-face talk: Let your parents know that you want to speak with them about something that’s been on your mind. Don’t say what the topic is until you’re able to meet with them face-to-face. If you live in another city, a phone call or, better yet, a Skype call can get the job done. Once you’re able to have the conversation, tell them you’re concerned for their well-being, mention that you read an article about hoarding disorder and you think they might be in need of professional help.

    Don’t expect all your points to go down well. The goal of this conversation is not to win them over but to plant the seed in their minds that, a) you are concerned, and b), you want to help them in any way you can.

  • Offer to help de-clutter their home: If your parents are willing to take your advice, that’s great! Move to the next step by offering to help them de-clutter their homes. If you don’t live nearby, think about hiring a trusted person to stand in for you. By offering to take action, you demonstrate that you are committed to assisting them with the situation.

  • Recommend someone who can help them: In some situations, your parents might readily admit that they have a problem but will say they don’t know what to do. Again, here is where you need to take direct action. Be prepared to give them one or two names of counselors who work with sufferers of hoarding disorder.

  • Be persistent without nagging: It’s important to strike just the right note when trying to help your parents with a problem like hoarding. Even if they don’t immediately respond to a serious discussion, refuse to let you help clear out their house or don’t want to talk with a counselor, you should not give up. Sometimes it takes a bit of persistence before the message sinks in, so keep reminding your parents about your concern.

    However, there’s no reason to make the topic a central part of every conversation you have with them. Keep in mind that with problems like hoarding, people have to reach a point where they are willing to take action. You can’t force them to do what you want. Many adult children have found that gentle reminders work well in the long run.

Case Study: A Family that Hoards

From a psychologist’s casebook, the following story is true. Names and other identifying information has been altered to protect anonymity:

Joan and Derrick are like millions of other young couples; they own their own home in a suburb of the town where they both grew up. In fact, Joan’s parents, Jack and Marilyn, live about 11 miles away in the same home where they raised Joan and her two sisters. Nowadays, Jack and Marilyn enjoy having the large house all to themselves because they’ve finally paid off the mortgage and can entertain whenever they want to. There’s only one problem.

Joan’s parents are hoarders, and in their case, the situation is becoming rather dire. The large house, gorgeous from the outside, is getting cramped inside due to all the stuff that has accumulated over the decades. Jack is an inveterate hoarder, and Marilyn goes along with his urge to keep pretty much everything that comes into their possession. Some of the items are indeed valuable: antiques, rare books, old coins and replica Civil War weapons.

So, what’s the problem? Jack also “collects” non-valuable pieces of history, like all the clothing and toys his kids ever owned, two non-working cars that sit in the back yard on cement blocks, several deceased refrigerators that he keeps around “for parts,” and hundreds of other space-hogging relics of a life gone by. Except for a box or two full of the coins, stamps, antiques and historic guns, it’s all worthless. Probably 98 percent of everything Jack has kept is ready for the dumpster, unworthy of eBay, Craigslist or a humble neighborhood garage sale.

The worst part of it all is that Jack gets anxious and fearful whenever Marilyn or one of the kids suggests he de-clutter his life. The once beautiful living quarters are now a cavernous, dangerous storehouse of unconnected cargo. Marilyn wants it out and has reached a breaking point. The issue has already begun to cause a problem in her marriage and she doesn’t know what to do.

After speaking with Joan and Derrick, both of whom worry about Jack, Marilyn decided to urge her husband to see a psychologist. At first, Jack was reluctant, saying, “That’s for crazy people. I’m not crazy.” But Marilyn insisted and, fortunately, Jack agreed to see a nearby counselor who is a friend of Derrick’s.

After about eight weeks of twice-weekly sessions, Jack began to realize that he had a problem with hoarding. Slowly, during the following year, he began to get rid of the piles of worthless items lining the hallways and filling the extra rooms of his old house. Derrick and Joan even pitched in and found a local service that would show up every weekend and haul away whatever Jack had put into a small dumpster parked on the driveway. The system worked well and Jack even threw a party once the whole house had been “de-junked,” as he laughingly put it.

The psychologist who helped Jack pointed out that it’s not uncommon for people to have problems with hoarding, but there is a wide range of severity for those who face the challenge. Some people keep more than others, but the disorder tends to get worse as time passes. The only thing that stops the urge to hoard is professional help, which typically takes just a few sessions over a two- or three-month time span.

The Bottom Line on Hoarding

Unless you are a professional psychologist, be careful about “diagnosing” hoarding disorder in someone else. Signs and symptoms don’t tell the whole story. Often, people turn to hoarding as a temporary response to other stressful elements in their lives, so you can never really be sure your parents have the disorder. Only a trained professional can do that.

But you can do a lot, including having a frank and open discussion with your parents, offering to help clean out their home, suggesting the name of a respected counselor and being persistent in your efforts to resolve their situation. It’s all about being part of the solution, rather than being an enabler. Keep a positive attitude and realize that change won’t happen overnight. Making the decision to simply “be there” for your parents in their time of need is part of what it means to be a loyal, loving child. These are, after all, the people who raised you. It’s time, at least in some small measure, to return the consideration.