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Hoarding in Children

Without fail, every few months I would need to go into my younger son's room armed with a couple of trash bags. I always practiced this ritual while he was in school. He was very attached to his odd collection.

As I opened a drawer I would spy useless items such as a toilet paper roll, a shiny gum wrapper, a dirty penny, a discarded catalog. It became routine to put my hand in his pants pockets before throwing them into the washing machine. One day I jammed my fingers into a snail. Well you know the saying about boys! I learned to push his pockets from the inside out after that.

What was this strange behavior? I asked his Occupational Therapist, but she had no clue. It would be years until I discovered that this was Hoarding. Most children start displaying this behavior around age six or seven. This did not appear to be a learned behavior as my son started around age three. With time I would learn that it is associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Our son, however, did not display any other symptoms of OCD.

What I've come to learn about Hoarding is quite interesting and certainly enlightening. It runs in families. About fifty percent of hoarders have a relative that hoards.

For the sake of understanding, I will list some of the symptoms.

  • They usually contain their hoarding under their bed, in their drawer or closet.

  • They are emotionally attached to their items.

  • They ask everyone not to touch their stuff.

  • Usually have intense anxiety if their stuff is thrown away.

  • May throw tantrums if things are taken away.

  • Some items are cherished because of an attached memory.

Treatment can consist of Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP). They bring in their least cherished item and rate it on a scale of zero to ten by their need for it. Then they work on letting the item go. It's very difficult in the beginning until they realize they are capable of doing this task. With the realization that they can live without the cherished item, their belief system begins to weaken. ( to-look-for/)

Even though their behavior is incomprehensible to us, we must never shame them or make them feel judged. Since the end goal is to diminish the need to hoard, they must feel calm. They are also being taught flexibility. Inflexibility is a trait we witness in many special needs kids. There is a part of the brain that acts like a gear shift. It helps us change from one activity to another. It helps us with our flexibility. This area of the brain is not functioning to capacity. There are medications that help with this flexibility issue.

As parents, if you have observed symptoms of hoarding, seek out treatment for your child. In the meantime, be patient with their behavior and teach them calming techniques. Offering your love and support will help keep the peace in your home.

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