The Effects of Parental Hoarding on Young Children

By Jaime Budzienski
Parental hoarding leads many children to feel lonely and isolated.
Parental hoarding leads many children to feel lonely and isolated.

Hoarding is a disorder characterized by the excessive collecting of items, along with an inability to discard them. The Mayo Clinic notes that hoarding may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that many hoarders don't see their condition as a problem, making treatment a challenge. Homes of hoarders are often filled to the brim with furniture, old food packaging and newspapers, clothes -- and even animals in some cases. Children growing up in these conditions are rarely unaffected and face a variety of struggles as a result of a parent's hoarding.

Social Impact

Making and keeping friends is a vital part of a happy childhood. But this basic need is violated when children can't have friends over to play or to meet their families -- either because of their own embarrassment of the state of the home or their parent's. Cramped rooms and hallways, filled sometimes floor to ceiling with stuff, make it difficult, if not impossible, to play safely and freely. The barrier created by the hoarding parent in establishing and maintaining friendships can lead kids to feel isolated, helpless and resentful, notes the International OCD Foundation.

Health and Safety Concerns

Hoarders and their children often have chronic headaches, breathing problems and allergies. In many cases, it becomes impossible to remove accumulated dust, blocked by clutter that develops and stays for a number of years. Spilled liquids, rotten food and garbage can cause mildew and fungus -- and can attract insects and rodents. Because of the unsanitary conditions, children of hoarders are more likely to develop infections like staph and MRSA. And, extreme amounts of clutter can lead to tripping, slipping and falling and pose a fire hazard, making it four times more likely for the house to burn and someone to become trapped in a fire, the OCD Foundation says.

Financial Burdens

Money can be tight in a hoarder's family, leaving less resources to meet children's needs and causing strain, according to the OCD Foundation. Money is often spent continually on pricey storage units like chests, lockers, garages and sheds as clutter keeps growing. If a hoarder has a specific item she obsessively collects, like antique furniture or dishes, these purchases can also add up over time. And many children of hoarders rarely, if ever, eat a home-cooked meal because the kitchen has become too crowded for use, creating a reliance on takeout -- a major drain on a family's finances.

Emotional Toll

Perhaps most profound is the emotional stress associated with hoarding, caused by the hoarder's over-focus and entrenchment in the collection and placement of objects, which, in turn, diminishes a child's feelings of value and worth, notes the Psychiatric Times. Hoarders often have a detached style of interaction, difficulty with perspective-taking and struggles with relating to the emotions of others, all of which can be damaging to a child's self-esteem as he views himself as less important or worthy than "stuff." Children's need for comfort and space is not granted when a parent is a hoarder, and they're often forced to live in one space that serves multiple purposes -- for example, a cleared spot on the couch might be used for sleeping, doing homework, watching TV and eating. They are also commonly denied the simple joys of childhood as the parent's need to collect things replaces more typical activities like going to the beach or the zoo.

About the Author

Jaime Budzienski has contributed essays and articles to the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," "Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine" and the "Boston Parents Paper." She holds a B.F.A. in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and a master's degree in education from UMASS Boston.