Your kid may have a messy bedroom. Maybe it’s strewn with dirty clothes, art projects, rock collections or toys. Totally normal, right? Yes. But in some instances, if those heaps grow and a child starts showing an unusually strong attachment to things like pieces of paper or piles of sticks, there may be cause for concern.

We’ve seen reality TV shows with adults suffering from hoarding disorder. But children can be hoarders, too. Adults and kids who hoard feel an overpowering attachment to their things, according to the Child Mind Institute, a non-profit that helps parents of children with mental health issues. Getting rid of stuff becomes emotionally painful.

Related: 5 Ways to Help a Compulsive Hoarder

What are the signs?

Though children and adults may share a diagnosis, hoarding plays out differently in kids, says Eric Storch, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. Storch is also All Children's Hospital Guild Endowed Chair in neurodevelopment at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. For example, some children can become explosive when loved ones try to get rid of their clutter, the Child Mind Institute notes. Some even have “rage attacks” in which they might hit or kick their parents or break things.

Often, though, hoarding tendencies aren’t as obvious — after all, plenty of kids are messy or disorganized. Storch says parents can look for these red flags:

1. He “hides” his stuff. You probably wouldn’t allow huge piles of kid clutter to build up in your kitchen or living room, which is why children who hoard often confine their piles to their rooms, Storch explains. Kids who hoard are more likely to stuff closets, dressers and the area under their beds full of junk, says Storch.

2. She constantly worries about her things. Besides being overly attached to their possessions, children who hoard stress about their things to the point that it becomes a major source of tension in the family, Storch says.

Related: Teen Mental Health Problems: The Statistics Are Eye-Opening

3. He personifies his possessions. Some kids give possessions human-like characteristics because the emotional attachment they feel is so strong, according to the International OCD Foundation.

4. She has a relative who hoards. About half of all hoarders have a relative who hoards, according to the Child Mind Institute.

5. He collects these things. Since kids usually don’t have money to buy things, Storch says, they hoard stuff like this instead:

  • Old and broken toys
  • Worn down pencils
  • School papers no longer in use
  • Free stuff such as pamphlets and flyers
  • Rocks, sticks, and leaves
  • Pieces of junk
  • Toilet paper tubes
  • Happy Meal boxes
  • Food, particularly if the child doesn’t get enough to eat

Related: 7 Ways Decluttering Improves Your Health

How parents can help

Limit the amount of space your child has to store possessions , suggests Jennifer M. Park, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the child cognitive behavioral therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, in an article on Anxiety.org. Relegate her items to a closet, bookcase or desk. Let her know things not stowed in their proper places may be discarded.

Use the “one in, one out” rule, Park also suggests. When your child brings a new item into the house, have him part with something he no longer uses. Leave the selection up to him to give him a sense of control.

Reward good behavior. Arguing will most likely only tighten a child’s hold on stuff. Instead, offer rewards in the form of experiences, such as a favorite meal or going to the movies. “Parents can help their child by identifying goals for discarding things, breaking it down into small steps and providing rewards for accomplishing these steps,” says Storch.

Get professional help. If the problem becomes unmanageable, it’s time to ask for help. “When discarding things elicits considerable distress, work with a mental health professional on determining the best approach,” says Storch. He suggests looking for a mental health professional with expertise in obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. Diagnosing hoarding in childhood is important since it can often persist in adulthood and get worse with age, according to a 2013 study on young kids with OCD who hoard.

Related: 4 Ways to Find Affordable Mental Health Care


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Kathleen Heins is a Greenville, S.C.-based writer specializing in health, well-being and organizing whose work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, USA Weekend and Reader’s Digest, among other publications.