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#98 Tackling Hoarding Habits in Kids

Season #2

Hello there, parents! If your child displays strong emotional attachments to their possessions, even those that seem useless or like plain old junk to you, then you might be dealing with more than just a messy room!

Today's discussion is for those of you who might have noticed a certain clutter-loving tendency in your kids. You know the type – toys scattered like confetti, collections multiplying in every nook and cranny, and objects seemingly without a home. Now, for many, this might just signal a lack of organization or still-developing executive function skills. But for some, it might be a hint at something more serious – hoarding behaviors.

💬 Join us for a chat as we:

1.Distinguish between hoarding and typical disorganization or messiness
2. Identify the signs and symptoms of hoarding in children
3. Highlight the positive aspects of collecting in child development
4. Discuss typical treatment approaches for serious hoarding behaviors in children
5. Empower parents with strategies to reverse hoarding tendencies before they reach a level requiring therapeutic intervention

I hope you find these insights helpful and actionable. As always, remember to prioritize your child's well-being and seek support when needed. 


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Today's episode is for all of you who might be dealing with little clutterbugs at home – you know, the ones with messes everywhere, collections multiplying like rabbits, and items that seem to have taken a permanent vacation from their designated spots. Now, for some of you, this might just be a case of your kid not being the tidiest or most organized soul, and that's totally okay. But for others, it could be a sign of something deeper – hoarding behaviors.

When you think of hoarding, maybe you've seen those intense episodes of "Hoarders" on TV, where you're simultaneously fascinated, alarmed, and intrigued by the psychological complexity behind it all. Well, today, we're bringing that conversation closer to home by shedding light on early signs of hoarding behaviors in kids.

If your child seems to have an unusually strong emotional attachment to their stuff, even the things that seem like junk to you, then it might be time to pay attention. While we're diving into some strategies today, it's super important to understand that this podcast isn't a substitute for professional assessment.

If your child's distress levels are off the charts when it comes to their possessions, it may be time to loop in a psychologist, a doctor, or someone who is an expert on psychological conditions in kids.

Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding in Children

I. First, you need to identify if your child has any physical indicators of hoarding behavior

It's a crucial distinction, and here's how you can make it. Dr. Jerry Bubrick, of the Child Mind Institute, uses these four insightful questions to help assess for physical indicators of hoarding behaviors:

1. Can you see the floor in your child’s room?

2. Can your child get clean clothes out of their closet, or is it so packed with stuff that they can’t get in there?

3. Can your child sleep in their bed, or is their bed temporary storage for everything?

4. Can your child do homework/projects at their desk, or is their desk covered with all kinds of stuff?

These questions might seem simple, but they're powerful indicators of potential hoarding behaviors. Take some time to observe your child's space and ask yourself these questions. It's a great starting point for understanding what's going on and how you can best support your little one.

II. Second, you need to assess for your child’s emotional attachment to possessions:

Now, we've covered some practical questions to assess the physical clutter in your child's space. We also need to evaluate their emotional attachment to their possessions. For some kids, it's not about the object itself, but the memories associated with it. That napkin from a birthday party? It might seem like trash to you, but to your child, it's a cherished memento of a happy day spent with friends. Getting rid of it feels like saying goodbye to a piece of that memory which might be too difficult for some children.

Kids with hoarding tendencies often struggle to let go of useless items, fearing that they'll be lonely or abandoned if tucked away out of sight. It's like each object has its own feelings, and the mere thought of parting with them feels like a loss or even a betrayal. They also tend to react quite differently. They might get visibly upset, throw tantrums, or even show signs of aggression when faced with decluttering.

III. Third, look for patterns of accumulation

Keep an eye out for those patterns of accumulation. Are they gathering things without much thought or purpose?

Sure, collecting coins might seem reasonable—they can be saved up and used as money later on. But what about sticks, acorns, bottle caps, or even rocks? If your child  is accumulating these kinds of things in abundance, This could be a sign that they're struggling to differentiate between what's valuable and what's just clutter.

Next, let's talk about the concept of "here for now." You might notice that your child is fond of stashing these collected items in various spots around the house. There's no real organization to it; it's more about having them around for the moment. They're not actively building a collection or organizing these items in any meaningful way. It's more of a 'see it, keep it here for now' mentality.

IV. Fourth and finally, assess for psychological attachment to possessions

Now, the fourth thing we want to look into is the psychological attachment to possessions. This goes beyond simply liking their stuff—it's about a deep emotional connection they form with objects. It's like they believe these items have feelings too. 

For kids struggling with hoarding tendencies, letting go of an object can feel like a major loss. It's almost as if they're mourning the departure of a beloved friend. This attachment isn't just about the thing itself; it's about the memories and emotions tied to it.

Take, for example, that crumpled napkin from their birthday party at the arcade. Sure, it's just a napkin with a smudge of pizza grease now, but to your child, it's a treasure trove of memories. They associate it with the laughter, the fun, and the joy of that special day. So, tossing it away feels like saying goodbye to those cherished moments.

Now, these psychological attachments might not be obvious at first glance, but they play a significant role in your child's hoarding habits. Understanding this deeper layer is crucial in addressing the issue effectively.

Treatment Approaches

When hoarding tendencies start to interfere significantly with your child's life or are accompanied by other issues, it might be time to consider therapy as a helpful intervention.

I.) (ERP) therapy:
One powerful approach to therapy for kids with hoarding tendencies is called Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP) This approach can be very effective, especially for kids who have hoarding tendencies in addition to OCD or anxiety disorders.

Here's how it works: in ERP therapy, your child brings in the items they've been holding onto, whether it's something they've saved for ages or freshly collected treasures. Together with the therapist, they'll assess how much they feel the need to keep each item on a scale from zero to ten.

Starting with the items your child feels least attached to, the therapist gradually guides them towards letting go. Sometimes, it's as simple as leaving the item with the therapist for a week to see how it feels to be separated from it. The goal isn't to toss things away immediately but to help your child gradually become more comfortable with the idea of discarding possessions.

Reward systems can also come into play to reinforce progress. Celebrating each step forward helps motivate your child to continue making strides in letting go of unnecessary items.

II.) Encouraging critical thinking about possession
Critical thinking is another key component of this therapy. Your child will learn to distinguish between needs and wants, a concept that can be a bit blurry for kids with hoarding tendencies. By asking questions like "Do you need this or want this," and, "Do you have space for this item," they begin to develop a clearer understanding of their possessions.

III.) Importance of non-judgmental therapeutic environment

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of ERP therapy is the ability for the therapist to create a safe space where judgment has no place. Therapists won't dismiss your child's attachment to seemingly trivial items or shame them for their hoarding habits.

Moreover, therapists also address any feelings of shame your child might be carrying. By unpacking these emotions, they help your child work through these feelings rather than letting them fester internally. 

Role of Parents in Intervening in Hoarding Behaviors with Children

It's essential to understand the pivotal role parents play in reversing hoarding tendencies in children. By actively engaging and supporting their child, parents may be able to prevent mild hoarding tendencies from reaching a level that requires therapeutic interventions.

Step 1) Identify the Issue

For me, the realization that my youngest was struggling with hoarding behaviors came when her room became increasingly cluttered. Simple tasks like finding clean clothes or doing homework at her desk became challenging due to the overwhelming amount of stuff scattered around. Initially, my daughter brushed off my concerns, claiming she liked her room messy. However, her reluctance to have friends over hinted at an underlying embarrassment about the state of her space.

Step 2) Initial Intervention

Here is the process I took to help my daughter tackle her disorganized spaces.

  • Start by choosing one type of item that is taking up a lot of space in your child’s room. In my daughter’s case, the first item I decided to tackle was her huge stuffed animal collection. 
  • Next, collect all of the identified items and move them out of the room and display them in another space so the child can see the extent of their collection with a fresh perspective.
  • Then, discuss the feelings your child has about seeing all of these items in a new space.
  • It might also be helpful to emphasize the risks associated with excessive clutter, such as difficulty with maintaining healthy living conditions, dust mites, and difficulty moving around. 
  • Now, empower your child to make decisions about what to keep and what to donate, without pressuring them to part with anything they aren’t ready to let go of.
  • Have your child go item by item and decide to keep or donate.
  • Encourage your child to say goodbye to their belongings they are deciding to donate.
  • It can be helpful to encourage generosity-reminding your child that the items they are giving away can be shared with children who may have less than they do.

Continued Interventions

Subsequent interventions on other items can follow a similar pattern, but don’t try to do too much at once. In my daughter’s case, we tackled different categories of items, like art supplies, trinkets, books, etc, gradually, ensuring we didn't overwhelm her with too much change at once. 

Other Tips to Keep Kids' Collections Organized

In addition to targeted interventions, there are several proactive steps parents can take to keep their children's collections organized and prevent hoarding habits from developing further:

  • Establish Clear Organization Systems: Work with your child to create clear and manageable systems for organizing their collections. This could involve categorizing items, using labeled containers or shelves, and assigning specific storage areas for each type of item.
  • Set limits: Encourage your child to set limits on the size and scope of their collections. Help them understand that it's okay to have a collection, but it should be manageable and not take over their living space. Think-Item in, item out. 
  • Regular decluttering sessions: Schedule regular decluttering sessions with your child to review their collection and identify items they no longer need or use. Teach them the importance of letting go of things they no longer value or need. Continue to use the systems you set up.
  • Practice decision-making skills: Help your child develop decision-making skills by asking them to evaluate each item in their collection and decide whether to keep, donate, or discard it. Encourage them to consider factors such as usefulness, sentimental value, and space constraints.
  • Encourage responsible ownership: Teach your child the importance of taking care of their possessions and being responsible owners. This includes keeping their collections clean, organized, and in good condition.
  • Lead by example: Be a role model for your child by demonstrating organized habits and responsible ownership of your belongings. Involve them in household organization tasks and show them how to maintain a tidy living space.
  • Celebrate progress: Acknowledge and celebrate your child's efforts and progress in keeping their collections organized. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue practicing good habits.
  • Be patient and supportive: Understand that changing hoarding behavior takes time and patience. Offer your child encouragement, support, and understanding as they work towards overcoming their challenges.

As we wrap up our discussion on tackling hoarding habits in kids, I want to leave you with a few important points to keep in mind. First and foremost, remember that hoarding tendencies in children may indicate deeper emotional issues. It's crucial to approach the situation with sensitivity and empathy, rather than shame or judgment.

If you find that your child's hoarding habits are causing significant distress or impairment in their daily life, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Therapy, especially exposure with response prevention therapy (ERP), can be incredibly beneficial for kids struggling with hoarding tendencies, particularly if they're associated with OCD or anxiety disorders.

Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that these hoarding tendencies don't carry over into adulthood. By addressing them early and fostering a supportive environment, we can help our kids grow into resilient, capable adults who can tackle any challenge that comes their way!

Thank you for tuning in! If you learned something fruitful, please share this episode to a friend who needs help!

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