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Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of Hoarders

Amanda 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.

27 Comments to
Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of Hoarders

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  1. Thanks for this article, I’ve had several adult children of hoarders as clients, and I will add this link to the resources I share with them.

  2. Thanks for this article, Therese. I am the adult daughter of a hoarder – my mother. My sister and I grew up feeling different to everyone else. We couldn’t invite friends round so friends soon stopped inviting us to them – I soon ended up with no friends at all. My mother often used to refuse to answer the door if anyone called. When we were little she used to instruct us to hide in case the caller looked through a window and saw us! So I recognise the ‘doorbell dread’ problem.
    I don’t think that the majority of people know what hoarding really is or the detrimental effect it can have on the lives and emotional well-being of other family members. The hoarding is a symptom of a far greater problem/illness. With my mother the hoarding was a kind of shield that covered her real fears, insecurities and deep unhapiness. She suffered depression throughout my childhood years, but never got the help or support she really needed. I think this was partly due to her relucance to face and deal with the root of her real problem – I suspect it would have meant her being brave enough to leave her husband.
    My mother died a few months ago and my sister and I are finally able to help our Dad clear the mess that consumed his and Mum’s home for so long. We have been shocked beyond belief by the stuff we have uncovered – some of it going back fifty plus years.
    I’ve experienced a mixture of emotions doing this clearing out. Part of me feels I’m betraying my mother. Part of me feels deeply sad as I realise she was even more ‘unwell’ than I ever imagined. Part of me feels relieved that we can finally, on behalf of Mum, throw out what feels to me like all the bad and sad stuff that represented suffering and unhappiness – to her, my sister and I.

    • Daisy,

      Your comment just helped me so much. I thought I was the only one whose mother told them to hide whenever anyone came to the door. I never heard the term “doorbell dread” before but it describes my situation perfectly. Even years later, the sound of someone knocking or ringing the doorbell still startles me to no end. If there is someone else home, I will have them answer the door before I will. I’m a lot better than I used to be but it’s something I may never be able to shake.

      • I understand. I feel the same way when the phone rings, because my ex-husband used to scream and yell at me over the phone. I still hate answering the phone as well as retrieving email. I get very anxious and start shaking.

    • Wow! That’s amazing – like your cleansing yourselves as well…

  3. “I’ve experienced a mixture of emotions doing this clearing out.”

    Now try to imagine those emotions, magnified, each time you try to clear up.

    I’m a hoarder myself, though I’ve learned to keep it under control over the years by buying only consumables, unable to explain to anyone how it distresses me when dear, loving friends buy me gifts. So many times I’ve tried, just taking one shelf or just one drawer. It takes massive willpower to push myself to touch those things I’ve set aside, and I would weep the entire time. I’ve wasted days just trying to clear one shelf. Which is why I gave up, but ameliorated the problem by not buying anything that I cannot eat.

    I’m an intelligent professional and have tried desperately to understand how stuff can cause such pain. At first I told myself it was just thrift. I’d look at an item of clothing and think how hard I had to work for the money to pay for it. Can’t throw it away. But over time realised it went deeper than that. When my mother died, my father remarried within months. His new wife moved in and (understandably, I thought at the time) redecorated; removed all traces of my mother. But it was mind-boggling to leave for school one day and return to what was no longer my home; nothing familiar. She then abused me and when I left home, she destroyed everything of mine that I couldn’t pack into my little suitcase: beloved toys, mementoes, books, medals and awards, everything I had to leave behind. I always thought I was trying to recreate the things of my childhood that I should have been allowed to sort through and discard or keep. Now I realise it’s more complex than that.

    • The term “Complex” is correct. I am a fellow survivor hoarder, I can understand what others went through, and the damage it has done. The strangest thing about this is, all my siblings have a degree of hoarding in them. I refer to my self as a “Recovering Pack Rat” because the urge is there to hoard, but I fight it. It seems that what little corners of clutter that do exist in my environment, serve to remind me of the parent that I loved so much, despite the problems.

    • ment to say: survivor OF A PARENT WHO WAS A hoarder

  4. “There are no easy answers to this, which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them.”

    Please forgive me, but as a COH, this statement really irks me. It’s not my job or responsibility to change my mother. I love her to death and want nothing more for her than to live the healthiest life possible, but this statement really makes me angry. One of the biggest challenges that family members are facing now that emergent awareness is happening in the form of memoirs, movies, and TV shows is the illusion/lie that the children should somehow have done something different to keep their parents from being stymied in this disorder!

    One of the most difficult parts of life as a COH is the negative responses like this the general public projects onto us when we come forward. Having been on one of the shows with my HP, I was told that I was a fat, lazy slob and that my mother’s life wouldn’t have been so bad if I lost weight, stayed in the home, and fixed her. What a load! I’m overweight because of the emotional abuse/neglect I suffered in the home filled with the hoard.

    Please continue to write about this topic, but please be cautious when making such statements. Who’s blaming the child of the diabetic? the alcoholic? the heroin abuser?

    If I could do something to change my mom, I would have FIXED her long, long ago. Hoarding is only the physical manifestation of what is messed up within.

    • Hi OneWeeSpark,

      I’ll be the first to admit I gave up trying to change anyone long ago! You are 100% right, if there was a way to do it we would have done it by now! I don’t want to be left with guilt one day for supposedly not having done enough, but I know I can’t do much and I have to get on with my own life. Like with most illnesses and addictions, you can’t help the person who doesn’t want to help themselves, let along even admit they have a problem. Those shows make it look like all you need to do is tidy up the house and it will all be sorted. That’s like pouring an alcoholics booze down the drain and thinking that will cure them. I have no idea what the solution is, but I must admit it does make me feel better listening to others stories. Thank you! And best of luck.

      • I feel the same about my two daughters – one is ambitious and the other is not. I can teach the same thing to the both of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll both incorporate certain concepts into their lifestyle.

        It doesn’t mean I’m a bad mother…

    • Thank you OneWeeSpark for your response. As a COH I am struggling to lead a normal life, hell trying to figure out what that should be and provide for my own child. My mother’s condition is not my fault. Her abuse of her children is her fault. Be it a mental illness or not- I do not believe she does not want to be a hoarder. She enjoys the control it has over her family and jokes that all the garbage bags piled up in the house are “our inheritance “. Please people stop focusing on the “poor sick hoarders” and focus on the children.

  5. Thank You for the article- I took my mother’s hoarding to the extreme opposite- I am highly organized ( which I know some hoarders are), but I also ( AT LEAST WEEKLY) go through every room in my house looking for items that serve no purpose. I get hung up a bit on my husband’s stuff- maybe some of the links here will help me to encourage him to get rid of stuff. Matter-of fact statements by me mean nothing to him ( ie: we have been married almost 13 years, in NONE of our 4 homes in that time has the TURNTABLE ever been hooked up to any speakers so the LP’s are just another thing I have to dust!- sell them on craigslist!) My mother has a live-in boyfriend that actually has been helping her clean stuff up ( at least it is better organized); but imagine when a meeting with a lawyer took place at her home and during ONE hour sitting around the dinning room table STACKS of paper and magazines had to be picked up and dealt with- I WAS HORRIFIED!

    I know I am extreme to a point in getting rid of stuff- but if I went an entire season and never wore an article of clothing I don’t need it and give it away!!

    • When I give things away or bring them to the thrift store, I keep in mind how happy everyone else will be to have them. We live in a very poor community and thrift stores are very busy with the poor economy.

  6. Wow, I have been so worried about myself that I am just now seeing that what I am doing is hurting my daughter. I am an alaholic and I spend my a lot of my focus on being sober. Now, I am going to try to deal with this issue. The last thing a Mom wants to do is hurt her children, so thank you for opening my eyes. I’ll keep you posted.

  7. Thank you for this article. Growing up as the child of a hoarder, I was convinced that my family was the only family in the world that lived the way we did. As an adult, it is immensely helpful to know that we were far from the only ones.

  8. My two siblings and I are adult children of both a hoarder (mom) and an alcoholic (dad). Dad died first and mom’s hoarding worsened. None of my siblings children or mine for that matter have any memory whatsoever of being over at grandma’s house, because her hoarding was so severe that noone could sit-anywhere, and, walking through the paths of stacks were downright dangerous. Well, mom died just about 2 years ago. The three of us and our spouses inherited the “task” of cleaning out 50 years of “stuff” that mom/dad had accumulated. It was a monumental job, at best. Thankfully none of us kids are hoarders-or alcoholics. The one lesson I learned through it all was that I will never ever leave, at my death, tons of stuff for my children to go through. I don’t care if I die with only 2 coffee cups in the cupboard, what I don’t need I have given away-to those who are truly in need-and that has me looking at my closet and cupboards in a much different light than I did before mom died. It’s a very very sad disease. We made a photo book of the mess at mom’s house, and began showing it to family and friends, a visual of just how ill mom was, although noone ever really knew it, but us…

    • Me, too – I dislike having to clean up after someone else.

  9. I feel like I suffer from this condition but it is mainly linked to my bedroom.
    I almost manage to keep most of my apartment in order. My bedroom is a different matter altogether.
    Broken drawers and wardrobes with doors that can’t close. Piles of clothes books etc etc all over the floor.
    I,m ashamed of the mess but even with all the will-power in the world I can never ever tidy my bedroom and keep it that way. I know this says everything about me and I’m really desperate for any words of wisdom or advice.
    Many thanks

  10. Keep it simple. Create a list of necessities and change behaviors:

    Replace an entire office and all media with a handheld computer – work anywhere anytime.

    Living room: Couch, chair, floor lamp
    Kitchen: One set pots / dishes / utensils
    Bedroom: Bed, pillow, 2 sheets, blanket, quilt, floor lamp
    Wardrobe: 7 outfits, sweater, hooded jacket, gloves, tote bag
    Bathroom: 3 towels, one cosmetic bag

    Use a daybed / sofabed to sleep, study, dine and entertain.
    A separate bedroom, office and dining room may not be needed.

    Store items in baskets beneath furniture.
    Vertical storage is claustrophobic and cluttering.
    Bureaus, closets, shelving, cupboards and tables may not be needed.

    Take good care of your possessions and pass them on to others.

  11. Being a minimalist has really helped me, because it allows plenty of time to work on all the details in life. My limited possessions are neatly stored away and out-of-sight. My surroundings are spacious and clear – it helps me to feel the same way on the inside. It’s been very refreshing and invigorating!

    • Not to be super inflammatory here, DJ, but I think ur going too far in the opposite direction. I am fellow COH. Been where ur at before, and living like a monk is its own kind of insanity. Found I was losing roommates with my zealousness. More importantly, I think the super clean thing comes from a fear of becoming them. But u are not them. The fact that ur evien on here researching this shiz indicates ur self awareness. Don’t punish yourself for their BS.
      there is a certain Zen to accepting ur fkd up parent for all their flaws. And soon thereafter, I think you become free to choose the middle path.

  12. I am a child of hoarders and have found so much benefit in reading about and learning how to manage Codependency. I do see the connection between children of hoarders and those of alcoholics – its as if it becomes your job to help your parents manage the mess they have created. As a child you are forced to exist in that way, but as adults, breaking out of that mindset is freeing, albeit painful. I have been contemplating attending a 12 step program (like AlAnon) because I see the very clear parallels to the emotional baggage of children of alchoholics. I haven’t gone yet – I don’t know why – I think I am not fully ready to embrace my own brokenness from growing up in this way.. but I hope to soon, and I know that attending may pave the way for me find even more freedom in my own life, and healing, too.

  13. Wow this is so weird reading about other peoples childhoods like it was my own, the whole thing of not having friends around as a child,then running out of excuses as to why your first boyfriend cant meet your parents as a teenager,and thinking it must be my fault that I dont help around the house.Even 20yrs on
    I hate going to my parents house with my daughter I,m tense and on edge and want to go straight away. Then feel guilty for feeling that way!

  14. Could someone in the Orlando, FL area respond to this request? My nephew’s mother (my sister) is a shopaholic & hoarder. He is trying to clean out her mountain of crap and would like to speak to a professional, who might also then speak to his mother. She will NOT admit to or discuss this issue at all. HE needs the help in knowing how to cause her to change and not keep bringing in more and more as he cleans out more and more. Her house and two storage sheds (she pays for) are loaded.

  15. I am in my 60’s and my 87 year old mother is a hoarder. Fortunately, she was not this way during my childhood. My sister and I cleaned house for her as children. Dealing with her stuff is tearing my sister and I apart. I am trying to get her living quarters in shape so I can visit more often to remove trash. I can’t stand to spend the night in her present situation.

    I realize my sister is an enabler. She allowed my mom to store my grandmothers household items in an unused part of her house 40 years ago and 15 years ago loaned her pickup truck to mom to move her junk. Now she reprimands me for throwing anything out without Mom’s approval. Thanks for a place to vent.

  16. Thank for this blog!

    I grew up thinking the house was my fault; the way our parent complained, you would think that us kids made the house that way. We did not have a structured home environment, and one parent was a hoarder, and the other was a (non-abusive) alcoholic.

    The positive side of this situation was that we knew our true friends didn’t care how our house looked.

    However, dating was a challenge; it was either run out to the front walkway and meet the boy, or do a quick clearing of the front room stuff into another room in the house.

    Once, I remember a good friend of mine (high school years), and I had a double date with some boys, and so she helped me clean the front room where two couches were we both slept on one (my room was filled with mess).

    The boys came into the front room and talked with us, and then left.

    Most times, I would run out to the front to meet the guy, and we would take off on our date. My older sister did the same thing.

    Sometime in my 30s, I was looking through old family photos; of course, most were thrown into a box or container, not actually placed nicely in a photo album. This was before the days of digital storage and sharing of photos.

    I noticed in older photos, I could also see that the background looked CLEAN…like a normal house!!! Then, I searched, and found more of those older photos, and the place looked so great!

    One of my siblings dies in teenage years. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like to have a child die. What I came to realize is that one of my parents (the biological one) never grieved about my brother (properly). Some parents could have ‘checked-out’ and slept or drank their life away, but not mine; others might have, not that I would judge because again, a child dying before a parent has got to be a horrible, heart-breaking experience.

    The pieces of this hoarding puzzle really started to fit together as I also realized that whenever a loved one died, my parent would fill the house with more stuff; not necessarily items inherited either…just collect more junk.

    While my other parent was still alive, their bedroom and connected bathroom were always tidy and normal, but after that parent died, those rooms became a disaster as did the rest of the house, gradually.

    There was no structure growing up. No specific washing up routine before going to bed, and one parent never learned certain (important) personal hygiene fundamentals, but luckily their close friend and a family member taught us that. I think when both parents have issues of a certain magnitude, they unintentionally neglect certain basics for their children; it does not mean the don’t love them, it just means they did the best they could with what they knew how.

    My theory is that every time someone close to her dies, my parent puts unrealistic value into objects, rather than letter themself grieve properly. It’s as if the collecting, hoarding useless crap to fills a lonely, emptiness; it’s (their way) of having some control in life.

    I recall, and they still do this, this parent would pickup pieces of junk on the ground and keep it. This was very embarrassing to be near them. Once, they actually STOPPED in the road while driving, and got out to pick up some debris or “something shiny” that I have no idea what it was….we could have been hit just for picking up some piece of garbage!

    The house should be declared inhabitable. There are rats INSIDE the house! Inability to afford repairs and plumbing and other problems that my sibling or friends `fix. It’s got mold and mildew, and talk about a fire hazard. Once, when I was in junior high, a mouse gave birth in one of my dresser drawers; at that age, I had no idea how unhealthy this was, and thought it rather cute. Now, it grosses me out.

    The city or some such agency had previously done checks, and told her to get the place cleaned out. This only got her to clear bigger paths, but she just has no realistic idea of what needs to be done.

    When my dad was alive, he always talked about (and I wish he would have made good on it, but it may not have lasted) buying a huge debris box and fill it up and haul it away.

    Once, we (yes, the kids had to clean it, but I really only remember my sister, myself and my mom doing the cleaning) cleaned the whole house for a surprise birthday party for my dad. It was great while it lasted! The sad part was…it was mostly adults, so I really couldn’t invite friends over to see it! You could see the floor! The counter space! Soon after, the house returned to the same old disaster it used to be.

    Once, my mom and sister went on a vacation for a week or two. I remember me and dad dragged the kitchen garbage over to the fridge, and filled it up with all the spoiled food (that mom always swore was good well past the due dates). We used to think maybe her being kind of poor growing up during the depression, that they had to ration food, and so she didn’t want to throw ANYTHING away, but now I think different.

    Anyway, I, by myself (I was about 11 years old), went through the ENTIRE house, and bagged stuff up, and shoved it all into the garage. The house looked amazing! My dad was proud as I was! However, my mom was super angry that I did that. That’s not the kind of response/reaction I was hoping for. I meant well, and was so pleased with myself to have a normal house for a couple days, but mom was not happy at all. To be honest, I did a pretty darn good job.

    To this day, and really good at organizing and cleaning, believe it or not. I don’t just vacuum around furniture, I move it, vacuum underneath, do detailing with an old toothbrush when scrubbing the bathroom, kitchen, etc.

    As a child, I remember my friends saying they wanted to live in huge mansions when they grew up…I only wanted a small, CLEAN place. To me, big property equals more room to hoard and make mess.

    I believe that hoarding is learned, but something one can un-learn. My room used to get pretty messy, but as I got older, it was the only clean room in the house (after my dad died).

    Honestly, depression is one thing I have had since at least my teen years and I’m in my late 40s. Living on my own, I have gone through periods of depression where my apartments have gotten super messy: dishes dirty piled in the sink or left out all over the place; clothing mountain on my bed (a mix of dirty and clean because washing laundry is easy, but put it away is agonizing for some reason), paperwork and junk mail overflowing, etc.

    I think depression and this issue (although, I am not a hoarder; I just sometimes let things get messy), of being so depressed, and not tidying up, go hand-in-hand. It gets so bad, that you get overwhelmed not knowing where to start.

    ADD as an adult (this was pretty much unheard of during my generation’s childhood I think), depression, and a child of a hoarder and (functional) alcoholic, added up.

    Truly, I love going through all my stuff, from clothing, to kitchenware, to DVDs, books, etc. and donating it. Sometimes, I get anxious to just get rid of the bags of stuff, that I put them on the curb…my neighbors are great for picking up my bags and/or boxes of “FREE” :)

    I don’t know about anyone else, but it really feels good to purge on a regular basis, all the stuff I don’t use, don’t need, don’t want, etc.

    These days, I keep my place relatively clean and clutter-free. I spent two weekend days going through paperwork (this I dread/hate the most), and now have two large kitchen trash bags filled with paper to be shredded. Community free shred days are great for this kind of thing.

    It’s interesting that I am even anal about regularly wiping down the inside and outside of my fridge; I find it appalling the way some people let spilled condiments, and other foods get stuck in their fridge. This is likely because our fridge was so disgusting growing up, that I realized I want better.

    Cluttered drawers and closets bother me to no end; sure mine get a little messy, but I make a point to organize and tidy them now. I get an almost ‘high’ from doing this stuff; is that weird?

    Utilizing items and space is super important to me. Sure, there are some things that are sentimental that I’ll always keep, but I still go through stuff every once in a while and see what I can get myself to part with.

    There is a great TV show called “Neat” with Helen Buttigieg, a professional organizer. It’s out of Canada, and it’s AWESOME! I love this show and how she really has great ideas (store things like with like….totally makes sense); and I love seeing the reveals! She really helps people (maybe not actual hoarders, but some are I guess).

    Here is a Youtube video you can watch:

    I didn’t mean to write a “book” here, but once I started typing, all this came back to me. I mostly avoided relationships for many reasons, one being low-confidence/esteem, another being I was used to not having people (non-family members) visit.

    Sometimes it seems these days, that my friends only want to visit or stop by when my place is a little messy! LOL Why is it when I am keeping it neat and tidy…NO ONE COMES OVER? 😉

    On a final note, I see a couple of my siblings doing hoarding at certain levels, but one of them, not to the degree of our parent. I know we were all affected by both parents’ short-comings, but besides being parents…they are also human.

    I hope others are helped by shows like “Hoarders” and blogs like this. I truly believed it was ONLY MY HOUSE, my family that was like this. It helps to know we are not alone in dealing with this.

    The more we understand the ‘why’ people hoard, the better chance of either preventing its escalation or at least helping them to heal and change.

    Now, I better go and do the three dishes in my sink before they pile up. 😉

    Happy cleaning, donating and organizing!

    • Thank you for sharing. I can completely relate to the “doorbell dread” concept. I can also remember my mom having us hide when someone came to the door when I was quite young. I didn’t realize it had to do with her fears, I just thought she didn’t want to talk to the riving church folks.



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