Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D., ABBP, ABPP, is the co-author of a recently published book, “Children of Hoarders: How to Minimize Conflict, Reduce the Clutter, and Improve Your Relationship.” We had the pleasure of interviewing her regarding the new book and her experiences working with children of hoarders (COH).
Dr. Neziroglu has published over 100 papers in scientific journals, and she has authored/co-authored more than a dozen books on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and related conditions, ranging from self-help guides to treatment manuals. She holds board certifications in Cognitive and Behavior Therapy from the American Board of Behavioral Psychology (ABBP) and in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), and she is the co-founder and clinical director of the Bio Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, New York. In addition, Dr. Neziroglu is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University and is a faculty member at Hofstra University.
What follows is the first part of our interview with Dr. Neziroglu. The rest of the interview will be published in segments over the coming weeks. “Children of Hoarders: How to Minimize Conflict, Reduce the Clutter, and Improve Your Relationship” is available directly from New Harbinger Press, as well as Amazon.com (print/Kindle) and other booksellers.
Background / The Book
What led you to write a book for children of hoarders (COH)?
There were many things that led me to write a book on the children of hoarders (COH). Since the 1980s all my research has been on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and hoarding has always been either a symptom of OCD or, as is currently in our diagnostic manuals, a disorder under OCD Related Disorders. After the release of my first book in 2004 for hoarders themselves, “Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding” my interest grew in the children of hoarders, who were often the individuals who brought in the hoarders, their parents. I noticed that the children were suffering greatly and trying so hard to change their parent’s hoarding behavior. I wanted to give them hope that the hoarding behavior would go away but found myself not able to reassure them. I began to concentrate on their suffering instead. I empathized with their pain and feelings of helplessness and wanted to help them.
Is the book aimed at adult COH, younger COH, or both?
The book is written for adult COH, but I think adolescents would also benefit.
In the time that you have worked with COH, what is the most interesting thing that you have learned about COH or their situations?
The most interesting thing I have learned is that COH are traumatized much like abused children. It is really easy to see why. As children and adolescents they had no choice about their space, they lived in squalid conditions, they could not develop friendships like others, and they had a BIG secret to keep. They lived with shame all the time.
The second most interesting thing that I learned is that they feel like their parents favored/loved their possessions over them. I cannot imagine how horrible a feeling that must be.
What is the biggest misconception about children of hoarders?
The biggest misconception about COH is that they are walking around angry all the time. More than anger, they are frustrated with the situation, with their parent, but, most of all, they experience shame and humiliation.
In the introduction to your book, you write that “this book is not about getting your parent to change, but about changing how you relate to the dysfunctional aspects of your parent’s life.” That seems to be a very important distinction. Would you elaborate on that?
In my experience most COH spend their time trying to combat the hoarding behavior and feel frustrated when nothing changes. Instead, I am suggesting acceptance that things may not change. It is better to see whether you can have a relationship outside of the hoarding behavior. I am suggesting not discussing the hoarding, but instead talking about other issues, seeing if you can do pleasant activities together i.e. go to a movie, dinner. I am suggesting that you view your parent as having an illness and as someone who feels powerless to combat it.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges faced by COH?
COH have many challenges. It is hard to say which is the biggest, and it also varies from person to person. I have seen one thread, though, and that is they (COH) need to heal from the trauma.
How are children commonly affected by their parents’ hoarding?
The children are affected primarily in that they feel shamed, rejected, frustrated, and misunderstood. Some long for their lost childhood, others resent that possessions were valued more than themselves (at least it feels that way). They cannot change the environment. Others are frustrated nothing ever changes no matter what anyone says or does, including leaving the mess for them later in life. There is no escape.
Many COH have difficulty discussing with their parents the impact of hoarding and ways to address it. Have you seen any patterns in these discussions? How might these discussions be managed more productively?
Usually the discussions between COH and parents are contentious, with the children stating their fears and insistence that the hoarding behavior has to change. Sometimes the child has already “cleaned up,” which has magnified a lot of interpersonal problems. Even if the clean up is minimal, the parent is angry and feels his/her possessions has been violated. The child tries desperately to explain why the clean up was necessary, with no understanding on the part of the parent. Other times the COH tries to seek help from professionals for their parents, but usually that ends up with the parent pleading that she be given more time and she will de-clutter. Of course, everyone knows that is unlikely to happen.
The discussion between parent and child may go better, but that does not mean that the clutter will improve. All that will happen is that the discussion will be less contentious. The COH can be more assertive. This means that the COH will start with “I” statements, be sympathetic as to the parents difficulties, and look for a solution. This may appear something like: “I am so upset, Mom, that the kitchen is so cluttered, and I am afraid you will fall and hurt yourself. I know you have difficulties deciding what to throw out, and you are so anxious when you throw anything out, but I wish you would understand how difficult it has been on me growing up and now too.”
The importance of assertive communications and boundary setting is discussed at several points in your book. What is meant by “assertive communications,” and how does one go about setting appropriate boundaries with a parent who hoards?
Assertion training has three components. It involves assuming responsibilities for your own feelings, expressing sympathy for what the other person is feeling, and looking for a solution. Assertive expression to the parent means telling the parent that you are feeling upset with the hoarding, although you understand how difficult it is for her to part with her possessions, and you wonder whether she would be willing to seek treatment, or throwing out only the “ripped up stockings”; or validating how difficult it was for you during your childhood. Another example may be: “Mom, I am so upset about never having been able to bring friends to the house because of your clutter, although I understand that you could not part with your belongings because of your own issues, but I am wondering whether you could acknowledge how upsetting that it was for me. Would you please just acknowledge that it affected me greatly?”
Please visit Part 2 of this interview at “Interview with Dr. Fugen Neziroglu (Part 2).”