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Operation Closet Space: How to Get Your Adult Kids' Stuff Out of Your Home

You want them to take their yearbooks and old clothes away. It's okay to nag. It's better to set deadlines.

By Kathleen Doheny

My adult son moved out years ago, after college. Now, he's happily married, with two gorgeous children. They live just 10 miles away, so I get to see them often, which I love.

A closet stuffed with an adult child's things. Next Avenue
Her adult son moved out, but his stuff, or lots of it, has stayed.   |  Credit: Getty

Now for the challenge, which you probably guessed was coming. Shaun moved out, but his stuff, or lots of it, has stayed. Old CDs, clothing, college memorabilia, school papers, car cleaning gear, big black ramps for getting under the car that I didn't buy and don't plan to use.

The no-closet-space issue has been an issue for, well, years. I have a 1,100-square foot Los Angeles cracker box I feel lucky to have, but it gets cramped when you collect things over the decades. And I have a shoe habit!

Shaun moved out, but his stuff, or lots of it, has stayed.

The issue peaked after my holiday party. I had treated myself to four big chafing dishes, fancy restaurant style ones with the burners underneath. An hour before the guests arrived, the handles of two lids fell off, so when I later requested 2 new lids, the company sent 4 complete new sets as a gesture of goodwill. So now I had 8 chafing dishes, or 7.5 intact. But either way, when stacked, they're tall, and they have no place to go.

So began — or rather continued — Operation Closet Space. Deadlines I had suggested for going through, sorting, tossing, taking away had come and gone. For a while, I had moved to Plan B, presenting my son with a storage box full of stuff, every visit, that he could throw out here or cart home. But then, one time he had a cold. Then LA's monstrous rains shut down daily life. Then the new grandbaby's due date grew closer, and we all just had too much to do.

Polling Friends and a Therapist

I was getting nowhere. So, I polled some friends for insight, and to find out: Was it only me? At lunch with a woman whose son went to high school with mine, I asked if he still had stuff at her place. "Girl!" she answered with a roll of the eyes. I took that as a "Don't make me elaborate." I also found friends who said, nope, not an issue. Oh, come on, they probably moved a dozen times, compared to my decades of staying put.

I needed some expert input to figure out why all this stuff is still here. The American Psychological Association suggested I contact Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, and a writer and researcher known for his expertise about adolescence and young adulthood. His latest book is "You and Your Adult Child."

I half expected him to tell me I had failed on some parental level, like not being firm enough to just express my need and get it done.

Instead, he opened our telephone interview sounding more like the leader of a support group meeting.

A top shelf in a closet with storage items. Next Avenue
The closet belonging to the writer's grown son   |  Credit: Kathleen Doheny

Turns out, he and his wife have a 38-year-old son, married, with a two-year-old. They have a great, close relationship with Benjamin, Steinberg said. But they just recently reclaimed some space in their Philadelphia brownstone.

Left at their place, he said, were three huge closets filled with Benjamin's stuff — school papers, clothing and memorabilia. "We had to plead with him for years," Steinberg confessed. I think I heard a sigh of relief. "It's out now."

So, if even an expert in the field has trouble, what is going on? Before finding out his exact and entire plan for reclaiming space, I needed to get his psychological explanation for why this happens. I was waiting for something complicated.


Maybe your adult kids don't want to let go of the past, completely? Maybe they view your house as a safe place so if they leave stuff behind it's not going anywhere, just in case? Maybe it's the ultimate compliment, that they trust you with their stuff, and not to peek at those private yearbook messages — an unspoken message that you've been a great parent?

Steinberg saw it differently. "It's just laziness," he said.                                                          

The Issue, Analyzed

Besides laziness, he added, adult children not living with parents anymore may still tend to think your house is also their house, a kind of reverse "Mi casa, su casa" thinking. That could be true even if they have never lived in your current abode or if it was the only house they knew growing up, he said.

"He was visiting, and we said, 'We're putting our collective foot down and you've got to get your stuff out.'"

Steinberg doubts that any adult children would actually verbalize that, but it may be the unspoken, subconscious mindset. He doesn't see it as entitlement, just the way the adult kids might think.

He doesn't see the whole "stuff" issue as dysfunctional, either; just a pain.

Now that the psychology of it all is explained, how to get the stuff out? Exactly how did the Steinbergs succeed? "He was visiting, and we said, 'We're putting our collective foot down and you've got to get your stuff out.'"

Benjamin told them to just throw it all away. "We said, 'No, you come and throw it away,'" Steinberg said. The room with all his stuff was on the fourth floor, and Steinberg said he wasn't about to cart it down to trash pickup.

So, cleanup day arrived, and so did Benjamin. He went through the stuff and decided what he would keep. Slowly but surely, everything was cleaned out. "It took forever," Steinberg said.

But it got done!

What Works?

Besides the foot stomp, what else works? Here are some how-to tips from three parents in-the-know who've been in your shoes:

  • “Give your kids a deadline,” suggested Jeanne Taylor, an organizational expert who runs  tailorly, a San Francisco Bay Area home organizational service. “If they don’t get their stuff out by the agreed upon date, tell them you will donate their things.” Be realistic about the timeline, follow up, and don’t fold.
  • For far-away adult children, text photos of their stuff and ask them to mark up the items they don’t want, Taylor said. Box up the rest, ship it or hold it for their pickup.
  • “Decide who is having the problem about getting rid of the stuff,” Taylor said. She finds many parents are sentimental and blaming their kids for their lack of space when it’s them who can’t part with the stuff.
  • Be ready for the counter arguments. When Benjamin said, “It isn’t like you need this space for anything,” the Steinbergs countered: “Yes, but someday we will move from here.”
  • Keep perspective. The accumulated stuff issue isn’t just one of younger adults, Steinberg said. Most of us collect too much and discard too little.
  • Forget the “nagging is no good” advice. “I guess it was the amount of pleading,” Steinberg said of the recent success. His son must have figured he couldn’t say no forever.
  • Break it down into phases. The Steinbergs’ phases: sorting, deciding, packing up, throwing away and donating.

The Element of Surprise

If all else fails, box it up and surprise them. Carolyn Reuben Green, a journalist and acupuncturist in Sacramento, California, lives cross country from her daughter, Natanya, a retired nonprofit administrator now at home to raise four young sons.

She weeded out boxes of books and term papers, keeping the things she thinks would be most important, then boxed them up and sent them cross country, via surprise delivery.

When Reuben Green broached the stuff issue, this was the reply: "My daughter, who was vice president of her class and homecoming queen, demanded that I dispose of all her scrapbooks, because now that she was over 30, married, and living across the country from me, she has no desire to see her childhood camps, high school antics and college travels."

Reuben Green countered that her daughter's boys might like to see them. That argument didn't fly. So, Reuben Green kept a small handful of photos she plans to show her grandkids and is holding onto the dresses she sewed when her daughter was a toddler. She weeded out boxes of books and term papers, keeping the things she thinks would be most important, then boxed them up and sent them cross country, via surprise delivery.

"I knew if I asked first, the answer would have been to give them all away," Reuben Green said.

So, motivated with all this information, I'm returning to my box-a-visit plan, but keeping in mind that parents of a 3-year-old and a 6-week-old are very, very sleep-deprived. By summer, I'm thinking that the chafing dishes will be properly stored and some of my shoes may be able to come out from under the bed.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about health and lifestyle topics. Read More
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