Hoarding: What the Clutter Is Really Hiding

Updated on September 13, 2018
Michelle Mollohan profile image

Michelle was a psychiatric nurse for 10 years. She wants to use her exeriences in a positive manner to help educate and inform others.

Do you have a friend or family member who is a hoarder?

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A typical hoarding environment
A typical hoarding environment

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a distinct entity under the category, “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders." While previously thought to be a rare disorder, it is estimated to affect 2-5% of the population.

People with hoarding disorder have an emotional attachment to various items, seeing them as valuable when others perceive them as worthless. Items vary greatly from printed materials (newspapers, books, etc), appliances, furniture, trinkets, toys, glassware, cleaning supplies, and even trash.

Motivations for hoarding vary among individuals. They may feel that the items will come in handy one day, thus refusing to throw them away. A perceived bargain is too good a deal to pass up. Sometimes, an item has a sentimental value related to a memory that the hoarder fears will be forgotten without the item serving as a visual reminder.

Hoarding causes stress for loved ones as well as the person who is hoarding.
Hoarding causes stress for loved ones as well as the person who is hoarding.

The hidden cost of hoarding

Hoarding has obvious ramifications, which include financial hardship from purchasing excessive items, damage to the home structure, and potential harm to the individual due to falling/tripping over clutter.

An unseen complication related to this disorder, that is seldom thought about or researched, is its effect on loved ones. Intervention typically involves professionals attempting to help the hoarder eliminate clutter and make the living environment safe and clean, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to alter their patterns of thinking and behavior. The family members are often an afterthought.

Hoarding can have a profound, life long impact on the family of hoarders, especially offspring. Children who grow up in cluttered, disorganized homes feel shame and embarrassment. They don't have conventional interactions with peers, such as sleepovers or play dates. Children may live in constant fear that someone will find out about the state of their home.

Children of hoarders may feel neglected and abandoned by the afflicted parent. They may feel as though they are not as important or loved as much as the belongings. They grow to resent the sacrifices that they are required to make while they are minors who are essentially trapped in the nightmare of excessive clutter.

Adult children of hoarders

As children grow up with a hoarding parent, their rapport becomes more strained and distant. Dealing with the affliction for years or even decades takes its toll. After repeated attempts to clean up or declutter the hoarders living environment, many offspring realize it is an exercise in futility. Some will simply walk away and refuse to be involved any further. Others feel immense frustration, hopelessness and anger towards their parent. Feelings of guilt can plague children of hoarders, whether it is guilt for helping the parent or avoiding the parent.

Exposure to the poor living conditions during crucial years of development can shape the behavior of the offspring. Some may choose to live a minimalist lifestyle, feeling adverse to having any objects not deemed essential for living. Others may follow in the path of their ancestor and hoard as well. Relationships with significant others can be difficult due to atypical interactions throughout childhood.

Children of hoarders will often keep their own children away from the hoarder. They do not want their offspring to perceive this behavior as normal.

Often the hoarder cannot see that their behavior is abnormal and therefore do not see the damage that they cause to others as a result. They can be oblivious to the feelings of resentment, guilt, shame and anger that are felt by the people who love them. While loved ones are aware of what is missing in their relationships (trust, support), hoarders can lack insight and therefore not realize what they are giving up by holding on to "stuff".

Feeling overwhelmed is a common occurence when dealing with a loved one who hoards.
Feeling overwhelmed is a common occurence when dealing with a loved one who hoards.

Help for hoarding

While hoarding may sound like an impossible disorder to treat, there are options to help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a commonly used technique to help the hoarder understand why they feel the need to hoard and to develop a new pattern of thinking and reacting. Professional cleaning crews trained in supporting individuals with hoarding can be hired to come assist the hoarder in discarding refuse and useless items.

There are support groups for children of hoarders. It is important to come to terms with the fact that a parent's hoarding is not the child's fault and that there is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed. Children depend on their caregivers for support and education about life. They should not be forced to be the adult in the situation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers


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      • janshares profile image

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        17 months ago from Washington, DC

        Excellent article, Michelle. It is informative in a clear and straight forward manner. I hope it will help a lot of individuals and families plagued with this disorder. Very important read.


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