Cluttered nest syndrome

Childhood clutter

We’ve all heard of empty nest syndrome that some parents experience when their children grow up and leave home. But in many cases, “cluttered nest” syndrome would be a more exact description, because the children leave home but often their stuff does not.

How the nest becomes cluttered

The process is usually a gradual one. Maybe the adult child goes to college or university for a few years, goes travelling for a while, or moves somewhere to look for work. They generally do not want to take their childhood stuff with them, or have any place to put it if they did. The parents may also not feel ready to completely let them go, so are content for them to leave most of their things at home for a while.

But weeks turn to months, and months turn to years, and still the stuff remains. Even if the child returns home to visit from time to time, for most of the year their stuff remains untouched, gathering dust, and stagnating the energy of the parental home. When I visit such a house, I can tell, by walking around and seeing where the children’s clutter is located, which aspects of aspects of the parents’ lives are in limbo because of it.

In one case I saw, a single mother of three children was living in a 3-bedroom home full to the brim with her adult children’s belongings, with no bedroom of her own to sleep in at all. She had moved into her son’s room, where half the floor area was already covered with bags full of his possessions, and had piled her own things on top. She couldn’t even get to the wardrobe to use it. If all three children came to visit at Christmas, as they usually did, she would move out to sleep in a caravan in the garden. None of the children had established a permanent home of their own so she continued to muddle by, with her own life on hold until theirs took shape. Not only that, but the most cluttered room was in the Relationships corner of the house, so it was no surprise to discover that she has no partner and very few friends.

In situations like this, there always seems to be a string of reasons why the adult children need more time to organise their lives before they can collect their stuff. Some parents allow the situation to continue for what they feel is a reasonable amount of time and then relegate everything to the loft. Others let it sit. But in just about all cases, if and when the children ever do come to reclaim their stuff, their lives have usually changed so much since leaving home that a good percentage of it turns out to be of no use or interest to them anymore.

How to clear a cluttered nest

If you are a parent in this situation, and much time has elapsed with no prospect of any change on the horizon, here’s a method I’ve taught to many people with excellent results…

Each week, photograph a few items your child has left in your care in their eternally rent-free family storage facility, and send the images to them by email. Include a message explaining that you need the space, and you will be disposing of these items by the end of the week unless they can give you a date in the not-too-distant future when they will come home and collect them.

If you do not hear back from them by the end of the week, jettison them in any way you see fit (and really do it!). Then go ahead and send another batch of photos, and keep going, week after week, so they get the message that you really are serious about this. It requires some effort on your part, but at least the stuff will start moving and you can start to reclaim your space and your life.

I suggest you begin with things you are pretty sure are out-and-out junk and gradually work up to things that may have more sentimental value. The beauty of this method is that a photo is the best way to keep a reminder of an item you once loved but no longer need any more, so your children can choose to keep the photo as a memento if they want to.

Another solution I have seen work very well is to move house and let your children know you will not be taking all their stuff with you. When we bought our new home this year, the previous owners gave their children an ultimatum of this type, and sure enough, they all arrived the weekend before the sale went through just in time to retrieve a few childhood treasures and throw the rest away.

If you’ve had success using any of my suggestions, or have a method of your own that has worked, do please post here to share it. Cluttered nest syndrome is a problem I see more and more in the homes of clients, and it’s not going to go away by itself.

Related articles
Adult children’s clutter stored in the family home
Clutter clearing childhood memorabelia
The cuddly toy epidemic, and what to do about it

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2012-2015

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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6 Responses to Cluttered nest syndrome

  1. Karen, we have ours & our kids’ stuff piled in the center & around the walls of the basement. Is there any significance to this?

    Also, where can I donate old magazines? Dr. Offices, etc. won’t take them anymore, nor will Thrift shops here.

    Thanks for a great article.

    1. Hi Sharon

      In my Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui book, I explain that the basement area in a home symbolizes your past and your subconscious mind. A cluttered basement tends to create feelings of hopelessness, depression, lethargy, being burdened or aimless. You can use your basement for some storage, but you need to regularly review what is down there, only keep things you actually use from time to time, and don’t have so much stuff that air and energy cannot circulate. If your children have things stored in your basement too, this article gives more information about that: Adult children’s clutter stored in the family home

      Magazines – You bought them to read yourself, so don’t be concerned about not being able to share them with the world. Just put them in paper recycling when you’re finished with them.

  2. My family are major clutter-keepers, and I’m a child guilty of this. My parents have so much of their own clutter that their idea of dealing with it is piling my stuff in a corner of the basement. I even have a home and family of my own now, but have no room for the stuff I still have stored… and the things I do want among what’s stored, I haven’t been able to find amongst the piles of stuff I have no use for.

    I am beginning to recognize how leaving this stuff stagnating is holding me back in my life, and must be having a similar effect on my parents who don’t need my problems piled in with their own. It’s time to start clearing it out!

  3. After my mom (and the rest of our family) helped my grandparents downsize and move from their farm where they had lived for 53 years to a retirement community, my mom got serious about getting rid of my sister and my stuff. She was already super organized and had divided my stuff into purple bins and my sister’s into orange. After the farm sale my mom started making me take at least one of my bins back to my house every time I would visit or she would bring up at least two when they would visit us. Luckily there were only about 10-12 bins for me, so about a year later all the stuff had been removed. I was actually very surprised at some of the stuff she had saved. I think I ended up keeping only about one bin worth of stuff and donated or recycled the rest.

    I also worked with a client who started gift wrapping her kids’ old stuff and sending it to them for birthday/Christmas/other holidays. She said this was a great way to reconnect and reminisce with her kids about times past as well as a great way to get rid of the extra stuff.

  4. Loved this article! Inspiration to do what I should have done a long time ago. I’m thinking boxes, and “Here you go darling!”

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