Seven-year-old Viola Kim loves the fort that her dad built for her. But rather than using it to play, the first-grader stuffs it to the brim with plushes, drawings, toys, Lego sets, and “anything that has ever been given to her,” says her frustrated mom, Lori Sapio.
Viola is not alone. Whether it’s a collection, habit or advanced to hoarding, this type of behavior is common among kids. But why do they do it, will the behavior stop and what can parents do to help? We asked the experts to weigh in.
Identifying the behavior
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center and co-author of Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding, says that there is a big difference between kids who collect and kids who hoard.
Kids who collect, he says, take pride in having ownership of whatever they collect — stamps, coins, books, cards, bugs, etc. Collectors often have a dedicated space to store and show off their items, which are their pride and joy.
On the other hand, hoarders do not have a dedicated space for their items, and there is a lot of shame and embarrassment that comes from people seeing these items.
Bubrick says that clutter is the biggest red flag for hoarding behavior. Not a typical under-the-bed and in the closet clutter, but clutter to the degree that the space becomes nonfunctional.
“Once chairs are so full of stuff that they can’t be sat in, beds are so piled high that they can’t be slept in and there is little to no floor space, we tend to label this behavior as hoarding,” he says.
According to the Child Mind Institute, about half of all people who hoard also have a relative who hoards, making this a behavior that runs in families. Anxiety, as well as experiencing stressful and traumatic events, may also be factors.
Bubrick also notes that many times, people who hoard have a connection to someone who lived during a time with a shortage of resources, such as the Great Depression.
“We may see future generations hoard because during this coronavirus pandemic, people are stockpiling toilet paper and cleaning supplies,” he says. “This reinforces the ‘I need this just in case’ mentality.”
Tips for parents
Veronica Ursetto, owner and therapist at Integrative Perspectives Counseling and Consulting PC in Chicago, says it is important to take a step back and understand the function of the child’s behavior.
“The ‘clean up the mess’ response can lead your child to heightened feelings of anxiety, increased secrecy in hiding and collecting, and new behavioral outbursts,” Ursetto says.
Instead of throwing out your child’s items, she suggests starting a conversation with them about their feelings: what do they like about their items? How do they feel without them?
“These questions can help parents create a plan with their child to reduce collecting and hoarding behaviors and determine if professional guidance is needed,” Ursetto says.
If your child agrees to limit the acquisition of new items, and work to de-clutter their space, Beth Spiroff, owner of Detroit-based Beth Spiroff Professional Organizing, suggests working with your child to find out which items they can and cannot part with. For the ones they can, donate a small percentage to those who are less fortunate.
“I think we can gradually teach kids ‘out with the old and in with the new,’” she says.
Lauren Tenenbaum, owner of the Chicago-based home organization business Leave That For Lauren, encourages parents to sort out the stuff with children and listen to their suggestions.
“Most savers feel like their items are their precious possessions and they need to feel like their parents agree with their importance,” she says.
Follow Chicago Parent on Instagram.
This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s June 2020 magazine. Read the rest of the issue here.