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Addicted to Stuff: Helping Kids Learn to Let Go

For four years in college and four years after, everything I owned fit into a small space. Because I moved yearly, I lived simply. If I was tired of schlepping something between apartments, it was discarded. Like most people, once I stopped moving and settled in one place, I began to accumulate. Balancing my decisions of what to hold onto and a need for simplicity has been part of an ongoing process of sorting and letting go.

What’s the emotional tie between you and your stuff? For many, it is an existential dilemma. To be or not to be: A saver, a nostalgic preserver, a frugal spender, a frequent donor to Goodwill.

As a therapist, I have observed that both children and adults find letting go of their “stuff” challenging. This is one reason why clients seek help. Anxiety is a common obstacle in the quest to let go; and for many, emotional healing needs to happen first.

While a majority of children can let go of outgrown toys, clothes and books in a way that’s appropriate to their developmental stage; for some, anxiety makes it a bigger challenge. These kids need adult support in letting go.

How do you parent a kid who accumulates?

Clutter, hoarding and hanging onto things may provide a child comforting feelings of love and security. The trouble is, love and security are better found within relationships and within the self than in collecting. Parents need to help kids see the mess, even as they acknowledge the legitimacy of their child’s feelings. A loving process of dispensing with their stockpiled stuff together with you, can help kids tune into an inner sense of security and empowerment.

Parenting a kid who accumulates is challenging. Why does it take so much effort and practice to let stuff go? What habits do you want to teach your kids around valuing items, experiences, memories, and accumulation? How do you yourself model letting go of stuff?

A parent’s own attitudes about it mingle with their child’s when it comes time to clear the clutter. If there’s any disconnect between what’s modeled and what’s said, kids will feel the tension. And even the most patient of parents can lose it when their kid starts screaming, angry because you tossed their treasure. Power struggles arise when the emotional parts of clutter-clearing are not addressed.

Teaching kids to move through any anxiety to letting go is a valuable life skill. It can be exciting, like letting go of the training wheels and transitioning to a two-wheeler. Other times, it hurts. Relinquishing a memento may trigger feelings of grief. Fear of the grief often causes kids to hold on to those mementos (and the relationships they signify) when they need to move on. Despite the pain, experiencing grief allows a child to reach acceptance.

Learning to let go often brings kids unexpected joy. A fresh, clean room makes space for playing and relaxing. When your child can give toys away to a child in need or a younger friend, the resulting feelings of generosity are very affirming.

Strategies for helping kids let go of their old things

If you think your kid is addicted to stuff, collaborate with your co-parenting partner or a trusted friend. Adopt a parenting mindset that you will teach “letting go” as a skill, or habit that can be learned. Research has found that behavioral approaches and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) work well with kids who are having trouble letting go. And, they can help adults as well.

Develop a game plan to support your child jettison their junk, based on the behavioral strategies below.

Write out expectations (i.e., no stuff on your bedroom floor, ½ the books need to go, no food containers in your room, etc.). Decide what is to be saved and what discarded. Brainstorm with kids to get buy-in, explaining that letting go is a part of life and you are there to support them as they learn to do it.

Be understanding, helpful and creative: You can take pictures of treasured mementos, even if the item is discarded. Let go in gradual stages to ease the transition.

Subvert your child’s sense of overwhelm by breaking the project down into manageable tasks. Show them how to sort into piles: keep, donate, trash. Be gentle with your kids when you approach this task of simplification. What adults value may be quite different than what a child wants to keep.

Stop buying for a period of time. This is both soothing to anxiety and also supportive of development, especially for adolescents. Take a break from buying more of the “little things” for several weeks. During this time, inventory with your kid what they have and do not have.  When they ask to buy something, tell them, “Let’s go home and see if you own that;  then we can discuss,” delaying gratification.

Teach your child to distinguish between wants and needs. When she wants to make a purchase, suggest that she ask herself: Do I really need it? She may already have markers in every color of the rainbow and every shade in between. Does she really need more?

Engage your child in problem-solving. Ask kids to come up with ideas and solutions, bringing mental energy out of the fear-driven part of the brain and into the executive functioning part, allowing the anxiety to shrink.  Help them stick to the plan.

Establish rules in your family around purchases, like the family who recently told me they have a “new one/old one” policy: when a new toy is bought, then an old toy is cleaned and donated.

Make your kids fiscally responsible for unnecessary purchases. Tell them that they will have to spend their own money for duplicates of those things that they want, but do not need. Model and talk about self-control.

Incentivize with rewards. Many kids are inspired to keep up the practice of retiring their old and unused treasures when they experience the satisfaction of earning rewards for it. Rewards work especially well when your child gets to choose them. Experiential rewards also reinforce a mindset that places less value on material prizes and emphasizes the felt ones.

It’s up to adults to be leaders in teaching children to let go of stuff. This requires patience, conversation, and a loving attitude. Children can develop the strong muscles of self-control regarding things. Remember, growth and success don’t happen immediately. If you see your child needs further support with anxiety, a family therapist can help.

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen P. Mullin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC45966) in San Francisco and runs Messy Parenting: providing workshops, strategies and methods for those who bravely parent to make family life less muddled and more joy-filled!

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