Toddlers who hoard food or small objects are dealing with issues in their past or fears -- related to a psychiatric disorder -- that compel them to hoard, or they are exhibiting control over a small area of their lives. You may question the behavior of a child who places all his toys into one area. For the parents of a toddler who hoards, the discovery of this behavior can be unsettling. Addressing the causes of hoarding can eventually help the child learn to find healthier coping skills.
Beginning at the age of 18 months, a toddler may begin to take control of his environment by putting all his toys into one spot. By putting his toys into his crib, under the crib or into another favored spot, he is telling you, "I want to know where all my things are," states Dr. Sue Hubbard. Although hoarding can stem from other, more serious issues, a toddler's wish to have control over his belongings is probably the least serious.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Toddlers can develop obsessive compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult for the child to control his thoughts and obsessions. Although he wants to stop the thoughts and obsessions, he cannot do so. One ritual a toddler with OCD might act out is collecting and hoarding certain objects as he tries to avoid a fear that has become an obsession -- the collecting and hoarding is the compulsion.
A child might try to hide his obsession with bad thoughts and his hoarding compulsion. The symptoms and condition develop slowly enough that it may be difficult for a parent to recognize the behaviors as problematic.
Connection to Attachment Disorder
Toddlers who have been removed from their birth family, placed into foster care and, in the instance of children adopted overseas, into an orphanage then adopted, can develop a condition known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. These children respond by failing to develop healthy attachments to their caregivers, whether foster parents, orphanage workers or adoptive parents. Food can become an issue for a child with RAD. To his mind, he has good reasons for hiding food.
Help for Hoarding
Allow your child to take and place his toys into one spot, if this is what he wishes to do. If you try to insist that he place his cars back into the toy box or on the shelf, you are telling your child that he should not have any control over even one small part of his life. Don't worry that he is going to become a hoarder as he grows up.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help the child address his obsessions and compulsions, including hoarding, if the behavior stems from more serious causes. Drug therapy is another option. Speak to your doctor about efficacy and any undesirable side effects.