Living with the mess

Off-site it's been brought to my attention that some AP's find it a little confusing and disturbing to see how their adopted children are keeping their rooms/private spaces.  One AP wrote:

I have already hauled out 6 large kitchen bags of papers, torn pieces of scraps, receipts, yarn pieces, Trader Joe's Stickers, and labels of soup packages all from her room and her playarea. I have not gone into her closet, I have not done this behind her back. I checked under her bed to vacuum and there is a sea of little pieces of papers torn up, What is going on? What do I do?

My response was quite simple, as I see situations like this being very simple -- see the situation from the child's POV, knowing "mess" may in fact be a child's important collection.  Armed with this insight, the parent can then adjust his/her reaction so both parent and child can find a way to effectively communicate with eachother, and in-turn work together -- that way the child (and parent) can learn to find a way to keep meaningful keepsakes for the child's sake, without becoming a messy sloppy hoarding freak.

But it occurred to me, this subject-matter is not so simple, as it reminds me of my own childhood, and how my Amother would frequently gut and clean my room, without me knowing what it was she was doing.  I suppose she was doing both herself and me a favor, but I felt violated and invaded, and her actions made me feel as though I could not trust her with my things or my feelings.  In my own case, I would simply come home, and all would be cleaned... and organized.  I remember such a clean setting would put me in such a state of panic, as I discovered no sign of my collections, (or my food stash), could be found.  I would have to be thankful and grateful for the favor she did for me... and yet I hated what she did to me and my things.

I cannot express the horror and hate that cleaning-mission of hers would bring me.

It was as if everything I saved and kept didn't matter.  It's as if my needs were not valued or important.  Not once did she ask if she could touch and move or remove my things  She simply assumed what she did and what she decided was more than alright -- it was "best".  As usual, her assumptions about me and my habits and what I wanted were w-r-o-n-g.

Now, in hind-sight, as a mom, myself, I can see how my Amother's interpretation of my room was, "it's an unhealthy mess".  But in my mind, my collections and keepsakes were an extension of me, myself, and all the important memories I wanted to keep.  I kept things not because of what they were, but each scrap, each wad of garbage, each stupid useless string each piece of chewed gum and broken crayon held memories and associations I wanted to literally hold, and keep.  .... and my stale food collection?  It served a very important purpose, since food was not always available to me when I was hungry.  [Why didn't she understand I needed to eat when I was hungry, not when she told me it was time to eat?] 

Obviously, there were deep adoption-orphan issues hidden in my room's mess.

Are there adoptees or AP's who have struggled with similar/like issues, either in the past, or in the present... and if so, how was hoarding/saving important memory keep-sakes addressed by the Aparents?  Was it?


no mess in our house ...

Kerry, I was just reading about the "mess" and it made me grin.

I have heard mess-stories like the one you are telling, time after time,  from other families. That is why it was very surprising for our entire family  to see how my little brother was (and has been ever since) the most organized, neat and orderly person around. You would never ever find his room, drawers, bags or anything a mess, and if someybody is looking for something in the house (pretty often), he is the one to be asked to help and find it.

The only trait of behavior that reminds me of the "mess" you are are describing, is that he used to be hoarding all sorts of house equipment when he was younger, such as keys, old cell phones, telephones, radios, but all of them sorted in a neat way.

Would that extreme need for having things neat maybe have the same reason, and just show differently? Sometimes I thought this was his way to stay in control of his environment, at least as much as he could.


Control issues

Over and over I read posts/threads that question whether or not their adopted child has a mental illness, like OCD. [See: the blog post,Trauma Tuesday: Hoarding, OCD, and the Abused Adopted Child  and Adoption.con's post, Does Your Adopted Child Hoard Food? ]

If put in the wrong hands, the child seeking order and control could be put through treatments and therapies, all for no sound reason.

[Think about the implications associated with all that can go with the diagnosis of a mental illness that does not exist...]

I myself have seen my own traits as a benign need to control small areas of my life, simply because so much had already grown so out of control. Is that an extreme reaction coming from me? Maybe... but in my own mind, my wanting and needing an element of control in my world was both logical and very sane.


The issues of hoarding and food deprivation behaviors were addressed in our pre-adoptive parenting classes many years ago, but only in the context of older child adoption through foster care.  I don't know if children adopted at birth are predisposed to hoarding and food deprivation behaviors to the same degree as older children adopted through the state.  I would rather doubt it.

Most therapists will tell you hoarding behaviors are rooted in trauma, instability, and loss suffered in early childhood.  Yes, both my kids are level 3+ hoarders and it has been a struggle.  Your mother was absolutely wrong to clean up your room and throw your stuff out when you weren't there.  It's wrong for all the emotional reasons you already mentioned, plus it doesn't teach anyone how to clean, organize or even understand the source of their dysfunction.

My wife is also a level 2-3 hoarder.  She lost her father to suicide when she was a little girl and she continued to live in a chaotic home until she left for college.  She is an accomplished teacher whose parents and students love her.  She's smart, personable and by most measures a successful and productive human being.  We're compatible on almost every other major level (finances, parenting styles, core values, etc) but her mess continues to be the biggest aggravation in our relationship.  We were married 25 years last week and I hope to get 25 more.

It is also wrong not to address the hoard and leave garbage, stale food, and the like pile up in a child's room.  Hoarding and chronic disorganization are learned behaviors and not only will excessive hoarding damage your child's present relationships, it will damage your child's future relationships once they leave the nest.

Here's some good ideas for (adoptive) parents who struggle with excessive hoarding.

Watch the cable show "Hoarders" and pay specific attention to the therapeutic approach to this problem.

Organize the hoard into three categories: keep, throw away, and donate.  Beware of the "yard sale" solution unless the crew from "Clean House" is helping you organize and execute one.  Yard sales are hard work and rarely effective when executed by the hoarder alone.  So much stuff is not dealt with for lack of the "perfect" method of disposal.  It's most often really a stall tactic meant to sabatoge the process.

Involve the hoarder in every decision possible.  Have a common stated goal in mind and encourage their progress through rational thinking, visualization and incentives.  Help them get started and help with the physical work but do not make their keep / throw away / donate decisions for them.

If possible, pick a time when the hoarder is less stressed.  Summertime is great for teachers.  If older children are on summer vacation or between jobs that works as well.

Move as quickly as possible without adding undue stress to the process.  Clearing the hoard is like taking an old band-aid off skin.  It's often less painful if you do it quickly and it helps to see immediate progess.

My daughter just finished cleaning her room for the first time in a few years.  She made 99% of the decisions and did 60% of the physical work.  Her incentive was a new boxspring, mattress, and brand new bedding.  We took everything out of her room (including all furniture), vacuumed the floors and repaired her closet door.  Despite a rather large empty wastebasket in her room, we found a lot of worthless trash and stale food under her bed. 

It also helps to address the job as part of a bigger project.  For instance, we're planning a move in the spring and I'm planning on painting and installing much needed new flooring over the next few months.  Yes, there's a small dumpster currently in our driveway in preparation for these jobs.  It helps the hoarder to quickly move the hoard off the property or out of sight once the decision has been made to throw things away.

With all that newfound space, she was able to rearrange her bedroom furniture and finally open her window blinds.  Her bed now sits in a bright spot under her bay window instead of under a pile of stuff in a dark corner.  It took her two days but I am so very proud of her.  She's much happier about her room now and has been bragging to her friends.  We took before and after pictures of her room but I don't know how to post them here.

Sorry for the endless rambling - your hoarding questions pushed one of my buttons.




The Reward

I like how you introduced The Reward element into the cleaner picture... I do believe rewarding a child for a job well-done is a very good parenting opportunity.

I myself saw my Amother's purging episodes as an act of cleansing ("I need to get rid of ____") punishment. Then again, she was never good at handling conflict... and could/would easily cut-out people and things she did not like out of her life, immediately, with no warning. [She was a master at The Silent Treatment].

I on the other hand, always welcomed discussion and debate. [I see discussions as healthy stepping stones... they provide opportunities for both sides to learn.] Since my Amother refused to discuss my own methods/ways, her reactions often led us into a constant battle of two wills. Her ways were passive-aggressive, and my ways would be more obvious. The escalations at home would be intense and instant, and often very silent.... putting my Adad in the middle.

[She too was a teacher, loved and honored by parents and students. THEY were lucky; THEY did not have to live with her and her "perfect"/pathological ways.]

As far as the A&E show "Hoarders" go, I too have watched an episode or two.... in fact, I mentioned my find in another new post about adoptive parents. See: How is a Hoarder allowed to adopt?

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