How to Reform Your Child Hoarder

Because that cardboard Benihana chef's hat has. got. to. go.

child-stuffed-animals
Photo by Maarten Wouters/Getty Images

Kids like to hold on to their stuff. And that stuff includes, but is not even remotely limited to: board books, hair accessories, doll clothes, plastic fruit, plastic army men, plastic cash registers, tooth fairy notes, pencil scribbles, paper airplanes, clay sculptures, “silver” supermarket coins, bouncy balls, cardboard fortresses, and backpack homework scraps. Real Simple asked Dr. Julie Pike, a licensed psychologist and expert on the treatment of anxiety disorders (she was on three seasons of TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive!) to explain why it’s so hard for a kid to part with an inconsequential Pokemon instruction card that has been under his bed for three months and yet CANNOT BE THROWN OUT! And to help parents teach kids how to let go, so we don’t have to do it for them (cue tantrum).

RS: We’re using the term “hoarder” loosely here. What is the clinical definition of a hoarder?
JP: The diagnostic definition of hoarding is when people accumulate so many items that they can’t use one of their spaces for its intended purpose and it impairs their lives. Meaning it causes them clinical distress, or it’s a safety hazard.

RS: Why are most children masters of accumulation?
JP: It’s a combination of nature and nurture. Biologically, it makes sense that any human being would want to hold onto resources that they deem essential or might be beneficial. We’re self-protective in nature. Think about that when you’re looking at the object in question. Is this something the child has a sentimental connection to? Their teddy or blanket? That’s usually viewed as healthy attachment making. Or is it just stuff that’s not being used?

As for nurture, I always tell parents: Kids don’t listen to what you say, they watch what you do. We need to model the desired behavior ourselves.

RS: So how can we help them part with the things that don’t have worth? Like, say, dozens of colored strips of computer paper (a.k.a. “streamers”)?
JP: Make a rule. If the items aren’t used by one month from today, then we’re going to recycle them. Or make a tradition out of it—schedule a regular clean-out day for the entire family.

This is important: Give kids a rationale for why they’re doing it. Tell them you’re going to give the bigger stuff to people who need it, to share with your greater community. Focus on where the things are going.

RS: What age can you start asking a child to de-clutter her own space?
JP: Definitely by age 5. Ask her to pick out one toy that she wants to share with another little boy or girl. Of course, her initial reaction will probably be “No, no, that’s my toy!” And here’s where ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) comes in. Accept that she feels this way—and give the toy away anyway. Always use the word and, not but. “It’s OK to feel the way you do, and we’re going to do it anyway because sharing is one of our family values.”