Frequently Asked Questions
1. Does my parent have hoarding disorder?
Nobody can diagnose a mental health condition over the internet. But improving our understanding of the challenges we face can aid our ability to cope. Starting here may help to make sense of your situation:
IOCDF, diagnosing hoarding disorder
Is it hoarding, collecting, or squalor?
WEBMD, Is it hoarding or clutter?
2. How can I help my parents?
Although you may be desperate to help parents who are endangering themselves, suffering from severe self-neglect, at risk of losing their housing, or their independence, it is never healthy to harm yourself. You should never sacrifice your own physical or emotional health and safety to help someone. You may not be able to save anyone from themselves, but you can always help yourself. Many COHPs (children of hoarding parents) have been taking care of their parents since birth, conforming to their needs, and feeling responsible for them. When adults don't take care of themselves, they often cannot teach children to take care of ourselves.
Consider the the safety instructions on an airplane, always put your oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help anyone else. Your parents’ health never trumps yours, even if you are young and healthy. Do not intervene without a safe plan to assist someone with HD, including adequate protective gear and procedures.
Trying to fix someone else is never best way for you to relieve fear, conflict, or trauma.
It is especially important to ensure that you care for yourself before accepting any caregiving responsibilities for others. Hoarding often causes loved ones extreme fear and distress, especially when you must live in a hoard. The impact that hoarding has on you can make it harder for you to help effectively.
Do not attempt to work on a relationship that is not safe for you. No illness ever justifies abuse or makes unacceptable behavior ok. Do not listen to anyone asking you for patience and understanding before you are safe.
3. Why does my parent "love junk more than me?"
Love cannot guarantee good mental health.
Many COHPs feel like stuff is valued over people. It hurts to feel devalued and unloved but it damages your self-esteem even more to embrace this idea. Many believe their parents should never have had children. They feel hopeless and wish they were dead because growing up in an indoor landfill teaches them they are less valuable than trash.
Parents struggling to cope with a mental illness may be unable to meet your needs. People who cannot take care of themselves often struggle to take care of children. They often have poor self-esteem and are unable foster healthy self-esteem in children. That does not mean they do not love you. Their behavior is never simply a reflection of their love for you.
Your parents must learn to properly care for themselves and develop better coping skills before they can adequately care for you. Ordinarily, we believe actions speak louder than words, but this does not apply to mental illness. People with addictions, or hoarding disorder, often feel deeply ashamed while still finding change extremely difficult. Mental illness is not a choice. Just like physical illness, mental illness requires specialized care. Nobody can heal their cancer or diabetes with love alone and it cannot cure hoarding either. Mental illness never excuses child abuse, neglect, or other unacceptable behavior.
4. Why doesn’t anything work? How do I make them see?
Nobody can change anyone else. Nobody changes until they are ready. Nothing works because it isn’t your life to live and isn’t your problem to solve. No begging, pleading, crying, reasoning, nagging, or arguing can change someone who is not ready to change.
It is ok to stop. Their actions are not in your control. It does not mean you don’t care. You are not abandoning them because you cannot be responsible for other adults. You don’t have to keep trying until you break. Lasting change requires strong motivation to form new habits. Trying to reason and persuade can make people feel more defensive, reinforcing rationalizations, and strengthening resistance. Your frustration is legitimate. Trying to change others often leads to more frustration for everyone.
Sometimes, people cannot see they have a hoarding problem because of a neurological symptom called anosognosia, which is different from psychological denial. They do not believe they have an illness. They may recognize a lot of stuff but believe “the problem” is that they do not have time or space to organize it. What really matters is what THEY do, not what you do. Their choices are not within your control. You might not be able to help everyone you love, but you can always help yourself!
5. Who could LET THEM live that way?
Neither children nor adult children have the power to LET any legally competent adult do anything. Sometimes, we imagine there is much more we could do because it is hard to accept that we are powerless in the face of a problem, or to live with the volatility and chaos mental illness can bring.
Our parents could not teach us healthy ways to cope with feelings of guilt or helplessness. It can be easier to try, and to blame both ourselves and others, than to accept that we cannot fix a loved one’s problem, or to watch them self-destruct. Often, there is considerable pressure, both implicit and explicit, from other family members, friends, neighbors, and community officials, and hoarding specialists to assume caregiving responsibility for parents.
It is very difficult to maintain healthy boundaries in the face of so much pressure and the guilt it causes. Nobody can “let” an adult do anything. Our only choice is how we act. It is not your choice to “let” your parents have a mental illness. It is not in your power to save anyone from themselves.
6. Should I call CPS/APS, or animal control? I don’t want to betray them/get them in trouble.
People with hoarding disorder often live with a lot of shame and fear the judgment and stigma of being exposed, even while denying they have a mental health problem. Children are never obliged to share that shame or to keep those secrets. Attempts to help may be unwanted or unwelcomed by your parents but you are always entitled to help.
Seeking help is never getting your parents into trouble. APS and CPS rarely have anything like the power you might fear. They want to help you and your parents, as do fire, code, emergency, and police officers, but they are all bound by the law. It is very difficult to remove children from their parents, or adults from their homes, no matter what you fear.
Your parents might feel betrayed. They might be angry. But we don’t know anyone who ever regretted reaching out for help. We do know many people who wish they had overcome fear, guilt, or shame to seek help sooner. You deserve help. Your parents deserve help. Hoarding is a problem that is too big for most families to address on their own.
7. What if something terrible happens if I don't clean, go away to school, etc.?
Hoarding is associated with many serious risks. Your fears are valid, no matter how much anyone has minimized or invalidated them. You feel anxious for good reasons, but you do not have to live consumed by anxiety. It is never your responsibility to suffer the consequences of unhealthy choices beyond your control. Their fate is in their hands.
Until your parents are ready to change, your efforts are unlikely to help and may inadvertently enable, or create further resistance, and deter change.
Learn healthy ways to cope with the anxiety, guilt, frustration, and all your other feelings about hoarding. Invest in yourself. Pursue your education and future goals.
You cannot control your parents’ choices. It is normal to want to protect the people we love from dire consequences, which can lead to enabling. Our desire to help can actually delay change and create more conflict, distracting them from their own problems. Sometimes, people only develop motivation because they experience negative consequences. If you live in someone else’s hoard, you face very difficult choices to try to make your environment safe for yourself without taking over responsibility for their problems.
Thanks to Rajesh Rajput @rrajputphotography for making this photo available freely on Unsplash