Signs of hoarding in children include a tendency to amass stockpiles of items, a propensity for messiness and disorganization, and agitation about anyone touching or removing their belongings. Often these signs exist concurrently, although many children and teens might simply exhibit one telltale behavior. The most common sign, stockpiling, should not be confused with children’s natural tendency to collect items they find valuable. Stockpiles associated with hoarding in children are generally comprised of meaningless, valueless objects.
Valueless objects most often hoarded by children include food, clothing, and even trash. According to psychologists, food stockpiles are often created by neglected or abused children who have been deprived of proper nutrition. Food collections might be stored in closets, under beds, in drawers, or in old suitcases. Occasionally, children and teens may store food in extra backpacks and old lunch containers. Generally, the stench of rotting food will alert family members to food hoarding.
Vermin such as rats, mice, and roaches may also tip the family to a hidden food stockpile. Some behavioral psychologists report that children with eating disorders such as bulimia might also hoard food. The presence of hoarded food can often dovetail with a family’s shift in financial well-being; often food hoarding in children signals that a child fears the family might run out of food or money to buy food, putting future sustenance in jeopardy.
Many children have attachments to favorite sweatshirts, a pair of pants from a grandparent, or dresses handed down from a big sister. The difference is that clothing stockpiles that signal hoarding in children generally consist of clothing items that have no sentimental value and that are damaged and completely unwearable. For example, if a child or teen holds onto clothing with stains and rips or clothing that is too small to fit even though she has no emotional attachment, it might be a symptom of hoarding.
The hoarding of trash elevates common waste to collector items. Gum wrappers and candy wrappers are the most frequently hoarded items. A child or teen hoarder might also fixate on collecting empty bottles and empty cans for no reason except to have them. Boxes are another common waste item collected by young hoarders. In some cases, hoarding in children might result in the saving of cups of dirty bath water or cups of sand and rocks collected from the yard, beach or playground.
Occasionally, toys might be devalued and used for hoarding. When this happens, the child will not play will the toys and will often ignore the toys unless someone else tries to play with them. If a younger sibling or visitor shows interest in stockpiled toys or other objects, the hoarding child might become aggressive, frustrated and possessive. In many circumstances, behavioral therapy can help children who hoard.