Is your child ‘boredom prone’? What to know now that summer vacation is here

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News
Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

With summer vacation upon us, parents nationwide are bracing themselves for those dreaded words: “I’m bored.”

Though it might seem like an innocuous statement, testing high on measures of “boredom proneness” is linked to numerous mental health issues, ranging from overeating to gambling problems later in life. And adolescents who rank high on boredom proneness are also more likely to binge drink and have internet addictions, Italian researchers found.

Boredom proneness — an assessment usually administered by a psychologist or other mental health professional — has also been linked to a range of other unsafe behaviors, including aggressive driving and using the phone while behind the wheel. The association between boredom and risky behavior is cross-cultural and has been found worldwide.

And while boredom is universal, it’s worth noting that there might be a gender gap. A study of college students conducted at a Turkish university found that young men were more likely to be bored than young women.

But what about the headlines that suggest being bored might actually be good for kids? Here’s what parents need to know.

Boredom as a signal

Around the world, researchers believe that boredom is important and even has public health implications as it relates to anxiety and depression. But the relationship between boredom and mental health is poorly understood. And while too much boredom can result in dangerous behavior, many experts believe that boredom also has a bright side.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about boredom, Erin Westgate, a psychologist at the University of Florida, said. Boredom is a signal, just like anger or happiness.

Boredom is a “functional emotion,” agreed Shane Bench, a psychology professor at Utah State University, a signal that we’re not getting the right amount of meaningful stimulation and should shift our attention — not necessarily to something entirely new but at least to something different from what we’re currently doing. Because boredom spurs people on to novel-seeking behavior, Bench said, “it can be beneficial in the right setting and it can be harmful in the wrong setting.” For example, a child with access to art supplies might paint; another, however, might decide to try using a laundry hamper to slide down the stairs, she said.

Parents often rush into the gap opened up by the phrase “I’m bored,” sometimes by switching on the TV or handing the child a tablet. But while these devices might pacify children, they don’t actually alleviate boredom for two reasons. First of all, boredom can be understood as a crisis of agency; secondly, boredom lets us know that what we’re currently doing isn’t meaningful.

Screens do little to resolve either of these issues. They render children passive consumers of content that often isn’t meaningful to them, said James Danckert, author of “Out of My Skull: the Psychology of Boredom,” during a recent webinar called “On Boredom: Screen Time, Free Time, and Child Development.” This meaningless content can keep children — and adults, too — stuck in a loop of scrolling in an attempt to alleviate boredom that never lets up.

So, to some extent, we should allow our children to wrestle with the emotion. Because boredom pushes people to seek out novel experiences — and not always dangerous ones — it can help foster creativity. And giving children the space to identify the feeling and then manage the discomfort associated with boredom can help build resilience, said Peter Toohey, author of the book “Boredom: A Lively History.”

Building resilience

“Part of growing up is learning to cope with boredom,” said Toohey, who pointed out that boredom crops up repeatedly throughout the human lifespan. (It’s often implicated in the “midlife crisis.”)

Toohey believes that children who learn to identify the feeling — and let it spur them to find a positive activity — will not only make better use of their time later in life but also probably be happier on the whole.

“Many researchers conceptualize (boredom) as a highly aversive state,” said Bench. “Finding a way to regulate this aversive state is an important skill to learn.”

Dealing with boredom is just one aspect of what psychologists call “emotional self-regulation,” that is, our ability to identify our emotions and manage our behavior and reactions. The double whammy of boredom proneness and poor self-regulation are associated with disordered eating, especially binge eating.

Learning how to deal with boredom is also important to academic success. Italian researchers found that students who managed the feeling by using mindfulness techniques were found to be more academically diligent. However, teachers should take note: students are most likely to become bored when content is either too easy or too difficult, Bench said. So instructors should seek to challenge their students but not too much.

Parents dealing with bored children need to strike a similar balance. While, on one hand, we can’t and shouldn’t try to resolve boredom for children, we can lend a helping hand sometimes.

Finding the sweet spot

The results of a qualitative study conducted in 2019 and early 2020 by Danielle Begnaud, in conjunction with the Kids Team at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab, suggests that parents should try to hit the sweet spot between allowing children to be bored and helping them overcome the feeling.

Begnaud and the other researchers had kids in the study rank recent activities on a boredom scale. The things that children found the most boring were tasks in which they had little autonomy or choice. “It was a lot of having to go to the store, or ‘my mom told me I had to do this,’” said Begnaud. She explained that children characterized those experiences as boring “because they were kind of not being allowed to do what they wanted to do or follow their own interests.”

The children, who were between the ages of 7 and 13, also articulated a desire to “use their imagination to overcome their boredom but they said this can be difficult at times.”

That’s where adults — or other children — come in.

Adults should be child-centered in how they help their children resolve the feeling. While they might offer activities, they shouldn’t dictate the activity and once a child is engaged in something, parents shouldn’t be overly directive. Rather, adults should serve as assistants —providing support to children and then stepping away once kids have a handle on a task — a technique known in education as “scaffolding.”

Managing boredom

Of course, not all levels of boredom are created equal. The higher the level of boredom, the more likely people are to try to remedy the feeling with a negative behavior. The lower the boredom, the better the solution.

“Boredom is both a problem and an opportunity,” said Andreas Elpidorou, a philosophy professor at the University of Louisville and the author of “Propelled: How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Lead Us to the Good Life.”

In addition to helping children through boredom by offering engaging activities, Elpidorou suggested going back a step to offer something even more basic that we all should learn how to do when it comes to our feelings.

“We need to help children recognize boredom and also know how to talk about it,” said Elpidorou, the father of two children who frequently become bored. “We can talk to them and say what you’re experiencing is boredom.’”

This is an excellent strategy because helping children label and unpack the feeling teaches them emotional regulation, Westgate said. The same holds true for adults, she added. “The more discrete and fine-grained you’re able to label your emotions, the better you are able to deal with them,” she said.

After helping children identify the emotion, Elpidorou suggests explaining that they are bored because what they’re doing isn’t adequately stimulating or doesn’t feel meaningful. While having those conversations won’t necessarily alleviate boredom, Elpidorou added, we’ll be giving them the tools of their own to “see what they’re doing and, perhaps, what’s missing.”

Parents can also discuss meaningful activities ahead of time, before children get bored. Danckert suggested making a list together of go-to activities kids can turn to when they feel boredom setting in. Westgate suggested writing down those ideas on strips of paper, folding them and putting them into a jar. Then, when children are bored, they can pick one of the activities at random.

Another idea: create a “touch, feel and smell” garden, said Natalie Gwyn of Walden University’s School of Counseling in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the recent webinar. Not only will that get kids outdoors, it will stimulate their senses.

While boredom is difficult for parents to deal with, it gives children the chance to figure out where their interests lie and to develop themselves, said Westgate. That’s why the listing of activities adults typically do doesn’t work for kids — adults are able to choose from a list of activities because they know what their values and goals are, while children normally don’t.

But boredom presents an opportunity for parents to help our children discover themselves more fully. “To an extent boredom is a feedback mechanism for them,” Westgate said. “Boredom is in part how we learn, ‘I’m really into science,’ or ‘I’m really into art’ because when I do art, I feel interested and engaged.” And based on that experience, children start to explore and develop hobbies that, sometimes, can eventually blossom into their adult careers.