“I was so embarrassed and ashamed of how we lived that a knock on the door terrified me.”
“We regularly had to eat meals standing up, because the kitchen table was inundated with piles and piles of stuff.”
The effects of a hoarding problem can extend to one’s children, creating mental health challenges for the next generation. This article discusses the mental health impact of living with a hoarder parent and offers tips for how to cope.
Navigating Childhood in the Hoarded Environment
As adults, children of hoarders often suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). These symptoms can be as severe as the PTSD symptoms that affect war veterans.
Perhaps the most unfortunate result of growing up with a hoarder parent is when, as an adult, the child tries to reconcile with a parent who refuses to acknowledge any guilt or sense of remorse over their hoarding. In many cases, children of hoarders attempt to help their parents after they have moved out and lived on their own for several years. They often return to their childhood home, hoping to achieve a realistic line of communication with their parents. Resolving painful memories of parental neglect and abandonment due to hoarding can turn into a lifelong quest for emotional healing and closure.
Unfortunately, hoarding disorder is a mental health problem that is difficult to treat. When hoarders are allowed to continue hoarding without ramifications, the prognosis for recovering from hoarding disorder is not good. However, for adults who lived in a hoarding environment as a child, treatments are available that can help them understand and cope with the anxiety, depression, PSTD, and low self-esteem caused by the actions of a hoarding parent.
Understanding Hoarding Disorder and Its Impact On Family Dynamics
Now listed in the DSM-5 under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, hoarding disorder was only mentioned in literary works until the latter half of the 20th century. Some psychologists have suggested that the rapid rise in consumerism and easy access to commercial products may be related to the increase of hoarders in the U.S. Moreover, the increasing prevalence of hoarding disorder diagnoses seems to correspond with the onset of the digital age in the late 1990s.
Evolutionary psychologists speculate that hoarding disorder is simply an ancient instinct “gone wrong.” Instead of accumulating items essential for survival as our ancestors did, modern-day hoarders with mental health issues amass stuff unnecessary for survival.
Studies investigating hoarding in families have identified a recurring allele on chromosome 14. In fact, 80 percent of hoarders report having a parent, sibling, or grandparent who also hoarded. Researchers think that a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and family dynamics may play roles in promoting hoarding behavior.
Non-genetic causes that increase the risk of hoarding disorder include:
- Tourette’s Syndrome
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)
- Major depression
According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding disorder is seen in three times as many people between the ages of 55 and 94 as it is among adults between 34 and 44. Although hoarding disorder does affect teens, it is often more severe in older adults who have experienced trauma in their lives, such as the death of a spouse, loss of their home due to fire or natural disaster, or severe financial issues.
Why Would a Parent Value Trash More Than Their Child?
When children of hoarder parents grow up and leave the home, the resentment, shame, and anger they feel toward their parents remains with them. Knowing that their parents prioritized piles and piles of trash over their wellbeing and security as a child infuriates and saddens them. Mental health problems arising from this barrage of conflicting emotions can lead to adult anxiety disorders, depression, and attachment/abandonment issues that make it hard for them to establish long-term relationships.
Living in a hoard as a child creates persistent feelings of isolation, shame, and instability that prevent the child from experiencing everyday social interactions with peers and relatives. Parental hoarding also poses health and safety risks to children. It is not unusual for child welfare workers to investigate complaints of suspect hoarding and child neglect and find the home crawling with roaches, reeking of animal and human feces, and lacking edible food.
Why do hoarder parents value trash over their children? Why doesn’t the threat of having their children removed from their hoarded homes motivate them to change their behavior? Some common reasons behind hoarding behavior include:
Emotional attachment: Hoarders form strong emotional “bonds” with their stuff. Even a single page from a 10-year-old newspaper may hold some sentimental significance to the hoarder that makes it impossible for them to part with it. For example, a hoarder refuses to throw away a piece of junk mail that arrived on their dead mother’s birthday. Or, they may say things like “I’m going to read this someday because it interests me,” “I’m saving these things to give as gifts,” or “I’m saving those clothes in case they come back in style.”
Potential for Usefulness: Many hoarders keep worthless stuff because they think they can recycle or reuse it later. Parental hoarders may fill a child’s room with piles of craft supplies and claim they plan to make items they can sell on Etsy.
Coping mechanism: Parents with untreated anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder may deal with their mental illness by insulating themselves from the outside world with mountains of trash.
The complexity of what causes hoarding disorder and the limited insight that hoarders have into their mental illness creates a denial system within parental hoarders that is unrealistic and sometimes delusional.
Seeking Support and Healing for the Trauma of Living with a Hoarder Parent
The neglect and abandonment felt by children of hoarder parents can develop into anxiety and attachment problems in adulthood, such as:
You maintain an emotional distance from others that prevents you from forming close, warm relationships. You are afraid to open up or trust others because you tried to trust your hoarder parents as a child. You wanted the unconditional love you deserved as a child but never received it. You don’t want to isolate yourselves from others but the fear and anxiety caused by hoarder parents is too profound to overcome on your own.
You cope with the trauma of abandonment and neglect by forming intense and dependent relationships. The fear and anxiety you feel over the possibility of someone abandoning you causes you to overreact emotionally to perceived conflicts.
You struggle with maintaining intimacy with partners in romantic relationships due to feeling emotionally conflicted. While you want to enjoy close relationships, you also experience anxiety and resentment over this desire to enjoy a close or intimate relationship.
If you are the adult child of a hoarding parent and don’t know how or where to start healing from the trauma of hoarding, here are some tips to begin that restorative journey:
Therapy/Counseling – Individual counseling and group therapy can provide safe spaces in which you can process the painful impact of growing up in a hoarding environment
Learn About Hoarding Disorder – Gaining insight into the seriousness of hoarding disorder may help children of hoarders resolve the resentment and anger they feel towards their parents.
Connect with Other Kids of Parental Hoarders – Sharing emotions and thoughts with relevant support groups and online communities reduces the feeling of being isolated and alone with your childhood hoard experiences.
Coping Mechanisms – Healthily express your emotions by writing, painting, drawing, or finding new hobbies
Navigating life as an adult child of a parent who hoards can be overwhelmingly confusing and stressful. Taking proactive measures to take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is essential for improving emotional resilience and moving beyond the trauma of growing up in a hoarded environment.