Cluttered nest syndrome happens when children grow up and leave home, but they leave all their childhood things behind in the family home for their parents to take care of.
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 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 their offspring go, so they are content for them to leave most of their things at home for a while.
But weeks can turn to months, and months 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 she 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 had 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 organize 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. It has become clutter.
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 don’t hear back from them by the end of the week, jettison the items 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 be 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. Once, when Richard and I bought a house, the 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.
Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2012, updated 2022
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