Adult children’s clutter stored in the family home

Why do so many adult children use their parent’s home to store their childhood mementos? How does this affect them and how does it affect the parents who allow it?

Parents and adult children

The story of four adults and a pile of childhood clutter

When Richard and I moved from Bali to the UK in 2010 and bought a house in Malvern, the retired couple who owned it wanted a quick sale, we wanted a quick purchase, and the legal boffins assured us that it could all be completed within three weeks at the most. The only thing that slowed the process down was the time needed for the couple’s adult children, who had long since left home, to visit and sort through all the childhood belongings they had left in the house. That added another three long weeks to the process.

There we all were, four adults wanting to complete our business, being held up by boxes of childhood keepsakes that it turned out the children mostly didn’t even want. They came, they sorted, threw most of it out, and finally we could all proceed.

“Why on earth would I want that?”

An interesting aspect of this was how shocked the parents were at how few things the children actually wanted to keep. For years they had provided a rent-free storage facility for all these items, only to discover there had been very little point.

They gave us some examples.

‘Don’t you want this photo of the two of us on the day we dropped you off to begin university?’ the mother asked the daughter.

‘Why on earth would I want that?’ the daughter replied, and tossed it in the bin.

‘What about this beautiful horse saddle?’

‘No, of course not. It’s way too small for me and I don’t have time for riding now anyway.’

And so it continued until the attic, the garage and the children’s bedrooms were empty.

Empty nest syndrome

We’ve all heard of empty nest syndrome, when children leave home and parents are left to themselves. The adjustment is especially hard for women who have put their own pursuits on the back burner for so long to make taking care of their children their primary focus.

However, as the American humourist, Erma Bombeck, once said, ‘When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. They’re upset because they’ve gone from the supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator.’

They wake up one morning and discover they are left to live their own life and are no longer sure how to do that. Motherhood has been so central to their identity that without it, they no longer feel useful or have a clear purpose of their own.

Curating a museum of mementos

Some mothers genuinely welcome their offspring flying the nest. They congratulate themselves on a job well done and enthusiastically embrace the next phase of their life. But for those who find the transition more challenging, there is a much greater likelihood they will try to assuage empty nest feelings by allowing their children to leave some or all of their childhood possessions at home.

This can start out quite innocently. The son or daughter goes travelling, goes to university, or gets an apartment that’s too small for all their stuff, so the things they don’t use or need on a daily basis get left behind. But weeks turn into months, then months turn into years, and before you know it you’ve become the curator of a museum of mementos.

It may bring you some comfort to maintain the connection to your offspring in this way, and you may think you are helping by keeping all their stuff. But if it drags on too long, you need to consider the effect it can have on both you and them.

Stagnant energy accumulates around clutter

Stagnant energy always accumulates around anything stored for a long period of time, including things you are keeping for others. In my book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, I explain that different areas of your home relate to different aspects of your life, such as health, relationships, prosperity, and so on. Even with the best of intentions, items permanently stored in one area will stagnate the energy of that part of your home and will have a corresponding effect on that aspect of your life. It can make you feel like parts of you are on hold.

In the story at the beginning of this article, it turned out that it was mostly the parents who had held on to things, not the children. By keeping all the items, they felt able to hold on to fond memories of when the children were young. But the children themselves had moved on. They were living their own lives and didn’t need those reminders. Letting the items go not only freed them to live more fully in the now, but also freed their parents to do so too.

How parents can help their children by making them self-sufficient

Of course not all adult children are like this. Some do hold on. Childhood items can remain for decades in the old family home, never used or looked at but comfortingly “there”. They serve the function of a territorial marker, giving the reassurance of somewhere they can return to if life does not treat them well.

But this can give a false sense of security that prevents them from becoming all they can be. It can also hold them back because part of their consciousness will be resting somewhere else. And when the parents die, as they eventually will, they will have to sort through not just their possessions, but their own things too. It will substantially increase the number of decisions that will need to be made at an already difficult time.

Far better that parents take a proactive approach to make their children self-sufficient by using some of my suggestions to overcome cluttered nest syndrome. This will help the parents to reclaim their own life and help the adult children to move forward with theirs too.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2016, updated 2021

Related articles
Cluttered nest syndrome
Keepsakes and memory boxes
How to let go of childhood memorabilia

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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3 Responses to Adult children’s clutter stored in the family home

  1. I’m so guilty of this, but from a different angle. I’d clutter cleared my life over several years, and stayed pretty much on top of it, but was totally obsessed with my parent’s house. They’d always had clutter and many unused old items, every shelf and drawer full of it. When visiting them I’d always try to throw things away. At some point my husband told me that it was inappropriate, that it was their house and their choice what to have in there. Finally it dawned on me – MY OWN clutter was there! Because they always kept so much, I often left things I didn’t want (like books, CDs or ornaments) at their house. Also stuff like my old bibles from childhood. Since I’m not religious I somehow thought that I should return those things to them instead of throwing them away. Well, after this revelation I told them that I’m taking back what’s mine and decluttered everything back home. Never been obsessed since!

  2. We have no problem with our children’s clutter – as soon as they bought their own houses, my husband (their Dad), moved their stuff out to their home and so we had space – but not for long. My husband can’t throw stuff out – ‘it might just come in useful/it’s not worn out (clothing)/we bought it and if they want it, then they can pay for it!!’ Hence we have a loft that is full to bursting, wardrobes full of his clothes that go in ironed or pressed and come out crumpled.

    When I sort my wardrobe out and want to throw our clothing I have not worn, he wants to know why and then when he sees it, he says I could wear it to ‘such and such’ an event!! He was a teacher and can’t throw out old text books (even ones he used in school, now over 50 years old) or his teaching notes, or his own childhood books. He even holds onto items that we were given by relatives after someone close has died – he needs to keep it as he believes he is being unfaithful to their memory if he disposes of it, yet rarely looks at it or touches it.

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