Hoarding has been much in the news, with reality programs showing adults trapped behind mountains of junk. Maybe you've looked in your child's room, with piles of unusual items rising to the ceiling -- receipts, plastic bags, trash picked off the ground, free car magazines from the supermarket, toy cars never played with but jealously guarded -- and wondered, "Is my child a hoarder? Should I be doing something to stop this?"
Hoarding is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis at this time, although it can be a symptom for diagnoses like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Reactive Attachment Disorder. On the other hand, it's not unusual for kids with developmental disabilities to obsessively collect objects that might look to others like hoarded junk -- and it's not necessarily harmful, either.
The ten questions below can help you determine whether your child's hoarding might be a sign of psychiatric problems, or whether it's a perseverative behavior that you might be able to work with. If you answer "yes" to questions 1-4 below, you'll want to consult your child's doctor or a mental-health professional for help. If you answer "no" to those but "yes" to some of the rest, follow the suggestions to use those obsessive interests to improve your child's communication and interaction.
1. Is my child in physical danger from the hoarding?
It takes an awful lot of stuff to really be a hazard. A messy room, and a room full of things your child values more than you do, does not by itself indicate cause for concern. If your child can't get out of the room or you can't get in, that's a problem. If your child is hoarding things that may be harmful -- dirty garbage, say, or items with sharp edges -- that's a problem. If your child's hoard of papers sits up against a heater or otherwise creates risk, that's a problem, but one that can probably be solved with some plastic storage bins. Consult a mental-health professional if hoarding puts your child or family in physical danger, and your child resists efforts to resolve that.
2. Does my child hoard food?
Jokes about teenage boys with pizza and old sandwiches under their beds aside, hoarding food can be a sign of a serious problem for a child or teen. Kids who might hide and hoard food include those with eating disorders, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and Reactive Attachment Disorder. It's not necessarily abnormal for a child to stash a favorite snack or some sneakily acquired candy in a bedroom drawer or backpack, but if you notice your child hoarding large amounts of food, binging on hoarded food, stealing food to hoard, or otherwise showing an unhealthy fixation on food, it's time to mention it to a mental-health professional or your child's doctor.
3. Does my child steal things and hoard them?
Children with obsessive interests in unusual items often hoard found objects, but actively taking items that belong to others and stashing them away is always a matter of concern. It's important, though, to consider intent: A child who doesn't understand that knickknacks from the living room belong in the living room and not in a plastic bag in his room is different from a child who deliberately takes cherished items from siblings and stows them in a jumbled stash in a hidden corner of her room. Putting attractive objects out of sight will help for the first problem but not the second, which may require the involvement of a mental-health professional to determine why the stealing is occurring.
4. Does the hoarding interfere with my child's participation in normal activities?
One rule of thumb for determining when a behavior becomes a disorder is whether it keeps the individual from pursuing normal daily activities. Is your child able to leave the hoarded collection to go to school? play with friends? participate in family meals and activities? Many children with special needs may take great comfort in the presence of their hoarded objects, but do not engage with them constantly or use them as a way to block out the real world. If you find your child's hoarding interferes with important life activities (and not just with something like "keeping your room neat"), that's a good signal that it's time to talk to your child's doctor or a mental-health professional about the hoarding.
5. Can I organize my child's hoarded items?
Kids who surround themselves with objects of obessive interest can be amazingly aware of any change in their collection, even if that collection looks to you like a foot of papers strewn all over the floor. This can make it tough to do clandestine clean-ups. But you may be able to help your child bring some order to the chaos as long as you don't eliminate any objects. Talk to your child about options like clear plastic bins to keep the objects neat but still in view; shelves on which to stack them; file cabinets or drawer units for sorting and stashing; under-bed storage units; and other ways to honor both your child's need to hoard and your need to get across the floor at bedtime. If your child resists all efforts to touch the stuff, even efforts that honor his need for it, that's an indication that you may need to consult with a mental-health professional.
6. Can I interact with my child's hoarded items?
Your child may shreik if you touch hoarded items to throw them away, but is there an opportunity to play with your child using those items? Follow your child's lead and show an interest in these objects that arouse such passion, even if you can't see what the big deal is. Ask your child to show you his favorite objects or tell you about them. Ask questions. Try playing with the objects the way your child does. This may be a door through which you can enter your child's private world, and that's not a door you want to slam shut.
7. Can hoarded items be used as a reward?
Finding something that is strongly motivating for a child with special needs can be a big challenge for parents, so if your child has objects that he collects obessively, you may be able to use that to your advantage. Assuming the objects aren't harmful and are under control organizationally, giving your child a car or a key or a magazine or a slip of paper from your purse in return for a task that's of interest to you may be a trade-off the both of you can live with. You might also consider setting up a token system with the end reward being an item for your chlid's "collection."
8. Can hoarded items be used to foster communication?
Talking to your child about her "collection" instead of yelling about it is one way to use these objects for communication purposes. Another is to allow your child to ask you questions about objects of interest. A child who sees little need for conversation may be inspired to ask about a receipt or a car or a key. Find things that your child might be interested in hoarding and start a conversation about them. Work together to find objects to add. Your child will always be more willing to communicate about things that are intensely interesting than things in which he sees little value or attraction.
9. Has the hoarding stayed the same or moved in a positive direction?
As children grow and develop, their relationship to those hoarded objects may change. They may lose interest, and allow one stash of objects to be trashed to make room for another. Especially if you've been able to foster some of the interactions indicated above, your child may have a more sophisticated take on the objects, closer to a collection than a hoard. With luck, the hoarding will remain neutral or better. However, if your answers to some of the questions above start to change, and your child's hoarding starts to seem unhealthy, you can always call in help.
10. Do I hoard things, too?
'Fess up -- do you also have items that you need to hang on to that others find little value in? Boxes full of your child's old school papers? Receipts from way longer back than the IRS would ever want to look? Broken toys and appliances? Clothes you'll never wear again? Many of us have our own version of hoarding, more controlled and less crazy than what you see on those reality shows, but enough to give us some sympathy for our kids' obsessions. Often, the difference between a valuable and trash is in the eye of the beholder. Extend that same understanding to your child.