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The ins and outs of childhood hoarding

Even Dennis the Menace liked to collect random things!
Even Dennis the Menace liked to collect random things!
(Cartoon: By Ketcham)

A few days ago I was cleaning my 5-year-old son's room when a troubling thing caught my attention. It began when I found my husband's cuff links hidden in the drawer of his bedside table, perfectly centered under his collection of Curious George books. I laughed, assuming there had to be a rational, and most likely humorous, explanation for their new home. I turned to his disheveled bed—the next task at hand—still grinning to myself about the eccentricities of childhood. After folding the corners of his top sheet and pulling his Pottery Barn Kids quilt taut, I picked up his pillow and gave it a little fluff, only to be baffled by the pack of Bubblicious gum that fell out of his pillow case. A few minutes later, I discovered a bottle of Tabasco Sauce stashed under some building blocks in his dresser drawer. Then, when I thought my discoveries couldn’t get any stranger, I dumped out the shoe box he had artfully crafted into a Valentine's Day mailbox last February, only to be confronted by an odd assortment of rocks, candy wrappers, and pieces of mosaic glass.

Not knowing what else to do, I ran to the computer to determine whether my son was going through a normal phase of development or whether his strange desire to hide things around his bedroom was an early sign of a future hoarding problem.

, or obsessive-compulsive hoarding as is it often called, is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them.” In adults, hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. However, a lot less is known about childhood hoarding, other than the fact that it is not considered a disorder unless it causes a significant reduction in the child’s quality of life.

To determine whether your child suffers from OCD hoarding, Tamar Chansky, the author of Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety in Philadelphia, recommends observing him or her very carefully for signs of the following: stress, sleep deprivation, depression or shame, agitation, slowness in performing everyday tasks such as getting dressed in the morning or preparing for bed, manic need to keep busy, academic difficulties, including slowness to complete easy work, behavioral difficulties such as angry outbursts when questioned about odd rituals or desires, and social difficulties or a desire to spend excessive time alone.

Because my son still lives the life of any happy, ornery 5-year-old boy, I didn’t feel as though I could accurately “self-diagnose” him with a disorder as serious as OCD hoarding. In fact, after reading Debbi R. Lun’s description of dealing with a child who suffers from the disorder, I was finally able to see the difference between collecting random objects and suffering from hoarding disorder. Lun mentions that her son’s disorder became so debilitating, he would purposefully close his eyes when he entered a store so he would not see anything that he would want to take home to save. “Usually,” she states, “he still managed to gather a handful of useless dust to take home.” Within a matter of weeks, her son’s symptoms became so serious he could no longer attend school.

While the treatment of hoarding is a challenge that meets with mixed success, Lun’s son responded to Inositol, a powder form of vitamin B. After a few days on Inositol, she says she noticed his symptoms lessening. After four weeks, his symptoms completely disappeared. Despite the Lun family’s success with Inositol, studies show it works for 4 out of 10 OCD sufferers. Although that information is a step in the right direction, there is still a vast amount of information about OCD hoarding that is yet to be discovered.

For more information on childhood hoarding:  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Children Who Hoard

When Your Child Has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder  Kids Health: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder