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Understanding Hoarding and Collecting in Children with Attachment Issues
I am a Christian mental health therapist. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of adopted children and children who have been in the foster care system. It is a topic that God has placed near and dear to my heart!
It takes a special person and family to take in children and offer love and protection. I truly believe this is a calling from God for some individuals.
What I also have come to experience is there is not nearly enough information and training to help equip adoptive parents and foster parents to understand and help care for these children in the ways that they need.
Many children who are adopted or in the foster care system have attachment issues or a full attachment disorder. This is not a choice but rather how their brain has become wired to view the world.
For greater information on what is attachment and attachment disorders please refer to my post Information You Must Know as an Adoptive Parent: A Therapist’s Guide to Attachment Disorders.
A child’s concept of love becomes skewed when they have attachment issues and then greatly effects how they interact in relationships as well as the world around them. Children with attachment issues view love as finite and therefore struggle to “share” love with others. This is also why most children with attachment concerns want and/or seek out more attention. They don’t have the ability to hold onto love and are more like a leaky bucket needing to be filled often.
Love then often gets equated to food and tangible objects. Please read my article on the Importance of Food for Children with Attachment Disorders for more information on that topic.
Tangible objects are real. You can touch them and use them. They are far easier for children with attachment issues to understand, as opposed to more abstract things such as love and quality time.
Think about it this way. What if you only felt loved when someone gave you something? The object would become important to you, right? And you would want to receive more objects to experience more love.
Now add in that you believe love is finite. So if a member your family gives something to someone else that would mean they got a part of your love!
This is clearly a skewed view of love and tangible objects but this is the way children with attachment disorders view the world.
Children with attachment issues often collect items because of the skewed importance of “stuff”.
The process of collecting can be varied. Some kids will ask, beg, and plead for items to be bought for them. Stealing is often another method to acquire objects.
The monetary value of the objects don’t always matter as well. In my years of working with children struggling with attachment issues, I have known children to collect candy wrappers, magazine subscription cards, price tags off of clothes, labels from cans/jars, and many more. Clearly none of these items have monetary value but they did hold significance for the child.
Many children struggle to clean their room or get rid of old clothing and toys. For children with attachment issues, this process is much harder.
I worked with a young girl many years ago that explained her struggles with cleaning beautifully. She described when her room was clean she wasn’t able to see all of her stuff and that made her feel lonely.
I’m certainly not saying to allow your foster child or adopted child to live in clutter and filth so that they can feel loved.
Sometimes you have to get a bit creative!
- Use see-through bins and totes for toys
- Utilize shelves and bookcases to display items
- Take off closet doors for a clear view of clothes
As described in my post about understanding attachment disorder, a child’s brain alters when they have endured a history of abuse, neglect, and/or significant instability. They can struggle to feel secure, safe, and provided for, even in a loving and nurturing home.
This is where hoarding can come in. Hoarding is to accumulate items for preservation, future use, etc., in a hidden or carefully guarded place.
Often hoarding can get connected with food, but it’s not limited to just food items. Many children with attachment issues have secret stashes throughout their room, as well as the house, and potentially even outside. These stashes may include food, money, and clothing items. But I have also known children to hoard inconsequential items in various places to keep their stuff safe from being thrown away.
We always need to meet our children where they are. That is true for children who have secure attachments as well as children with attachment issues.
Initially a child may need stashes to feel secure. That’s okay! Please let that be okay!
Again, we just have to get creative.
- Create a “collection box” for the inconsequential items that is off limits for parents. (Make sure to have the conversation about “perishable items” for safety sake)
- Allow stashes with rules and boundaries.
- No stashes in other people’s rooms
- No stashes in garbages
- Put a limit on the number of stashes
- Again, discuss the concept of perishable items
- If the stashes are more like a ‘bug out bag’ and getting ready to run if necessary, talk about where the child could run to. (Remember meet them where they are!) Provide phone numbers, addresses, and a map.
- Trusted family friend (talk to the friend ahead of time)
- Local church
- Local park (depending upon time of day)
Helping the children with these issues is not condoning the behavior or reinforcing it. It is, however, helping them to know they are worthy of caring for. Exactly as they are! The hope is that it takes away the need for secrecy and some of their shame.
Please keep in mind, they didn’t ask for this life. But they did come into your home for a reason! I pray that you will let God work in your heart so that you can work in theirs.
There is information on attachment disorders everywhere however not all of it is accurate or beneficial. I highly recommend and trust information from Daniel Siegel, Peter Levine, and Bessel van der Kolk.
The book When Love is Not Enough is also a good introductory book to Reactive Attachment Disorders and attachment issues.
I pray that this post provides information and understanding for someone who needs it today.
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