Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of Hoarders

Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of HoardersAmanda grew up with a mother who hoarded everything from shoes to coupons. Newspapers were stacked in the bathroom of her childhood home, clothes were piled so high on her mother’s bed that she slept on the living room sofa. Amanda rarely ate at home because the kitchen counters were covered with Penny Savers, and on the kitchen table was a mound of bills and letters that had yet to be filed or thrown out.

In fact, “thrown out” was a term Amanda never heard growing up.

Like most children of hoarders, Amanda kept her mother’s disorder to herself, because she didn’t understand it and because she feared that friends would treat her differently and make fun of her behind her back. She simply made up reasons why they could never meet at her house. She suffered from the hang-up that practically all children of hoarders describe as “doorbell dread,” the panic felt when someone arrives at the door.


As an adult, Amanda eventually cleared out her mother’s house and helped her settle into a retirement community. Although the hoarding is considerably better, Amanda still feels the need to barge in once a month to make sure that boxes aren’t collecting in the hallway and the bathtub isn’t storing newspapers or clothes.

This child of a hoarder is only now coming to terms with the profound effect her mother’s disorder has had on her. Upon reading Jessie Sholl’s book, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding, she recognized herself in so much of it, breathing a sigh of relief that at least one other person in this world understands her childhood drama and the ongoing fears she battles today.


Last month Steven Kurutz published an insightful piece in the New York Times about the baggage (no pun intended) hoarders leave their children with, and the children’s journey back to a normal relationship with “stuff.”

I found it all fascinating since I have a few friends whose parents are hoarders. Much of their childhood resembled mine, as a child of an alcoholic: the inconsistency, the shame, the confusion, and that amount of energy invested into covering up all the evidence in front of friends. However, unlike children of alcoholics, or adult children of alcoholics, children of hoarders don’t know where to turn for support. There are a number of online support groups and blogs devoted to children of hoarders. In his article, Kurutz mentions a few, such as the online forum “Children of Hoarders.” A friend of mine found a group devoted to sons of hoarders, and another to daughters. However, just in that last two years has the disorder gained the attention of journalists and media, with the two reality shows, TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and A&E’s “Hoarders.”


Wall Street Journal columnist Melinda Beck devoted two pieces to hoarding: one on how to help hoarders themselves, and one highlighting issues that children of hoarders face. A few weeks ago I interviewed Beck and asked her to share a list of things that children of hoarders, or any relative or friend for that matter, can do to either help the hoarder or process the disorder for themselves. She responded:


There are no easy answers to this, which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them. Some experts advocate “harm reduction” – just making sure the papers aren’t piled in front of the space heater and there’s a path to the door and the bathroom is useable. If you can get the hoarder to accept the need for that and throw away a few things, they may realize that it’s not so traumatizing and it might be a wedge to go further. You might try cleaning out just one room and seeing how that goes.

In some ways, being forced to move out quickly like my brother was can be a blessing. You can blame the bank or the sheriff — it’s not the sensible family against the nut case. It’s true that people often start hoarding again in a new setting, but at least it will take awhile to build up to a dangerous level again.


Working on the underlying emotional issues may be the best approach. Antidepressants might numb the pain enough to let them realize that the clutter isn’t serving the purpose they want it to. I really love the advice to create “shrines” or memory boxes if they are still grieving for lost loved ones or lost parts of themselves, with a few important things they can focus on, rather than a big disorganized pile. If you can honor the emotion they’re feeling, rather than denying it, they might be more willing to cooperate.

And if feeling abandoned or lonely or purposeless is fueling this behavior, see if you can find something else for them to do to fill up that emptiness—even if it’s volunteer job. I didn’t have the chance to try that with my brother, but if I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d try.


If I could communicate only one message to children of hoarders, it would be similar to a sentiment that consoled me as a child of an alcoholic, and that is to know that you are not alone, even though it certainly feels like it when you are overwhelmed by the dysfunction. Be sure to take care of you, because you can’t begin to take care of anyone until you meet your own needs.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rita

    In my case I was the hoarding parent. My son now hoards. We both have bipolar and anxiety attacks. Is that related to hoarding in any way?I have other OCD problems as well. I was terribly ashamed of my home raising my children, but, I was also working over 60 hours a week as a single divorced (read: cheated on and dumped) mom. I was exhausted. As things piled up I had no strength left to clean it all back up! I hope none of these writers you mention are dumping more guilt on people or parents who hoard. That’s the last thing they need! We don’t like being the way we are but we often don’t have the mental or physical energy to ‘fix’ ourselves without a great deal of therapy which is not always available to us. And we have more pressing problems to work on first like not killing ourselves that the hoarding seems very small in comparison.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Deb (OLD FLY GIRL)

    I specifically watch the A&E & TLC shows on hoarding to test myself as to my dysfunctional, be it minimal in comparison, hoarding tendencies! I’m called a ‘pack rat’. But I actually fear I will someday spiral out of control, so I watch the shows to keep me ‘in check’, so to speak.

    Why do I feel as if I can’t throw out magazines I have’t had time to read, or books I’ve already read? Why do I save all my clothing (in tubs of smaller sizes also) and shoes & scarfs & socks, because ‘someday’ I’ll wear them?? It’s frightening. My husb. Keeps my hoarding somewhat in check, and I have a small amount of storage areas, which help keep things in control. But, WHY do I feel this need to hoard? I was not from a poor family nor a dysfunctional family, and I haven’t had major trauma events…so where does this come from? Does anyone know of any books that might explain my reason for hoarding certain things? If I lived in a big house, or lived alone, I am terrified at the prospect of how bad I COULD get!

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment stephanie

    Am STEPHANIE from FLORIDA i want to share my life experience to every body on this site. i was in a serious relationship with mike i love him so much we have dated for almost 6 years now. until he meant another girl called charity he told me that he is know longer interested in dating me any more. i was so confuse i don’t know what to do so i told my friend about what my love just told me and he told me that she can solve my problem i was doubting her how can that be possible so she directed me to a spell caster called DR voodoo .so i contacted him and i explain every thing to him and he told me that my problem will be solved within 2days if i believe i said OK .So he caste_ a spell for me and after 2days my love came back to me begging me on his knees on the ground asking me to forgive him. And I was surprise just like a dream and today Am so happy now. so that why i decided to share my experience with every body incase there is anyone out there that have such problem should contact him via

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