It’s just four hours into a calm, lazy Saturday morning, and I feel a kid tugging at my sweats. “Mom, I’m bored.” Seriously? You haven’t been home for more than a few waking hours in the last week with school and sports and activities and errands and life, and that’s all it takes? I resist the urge to say what I really think — and what my mom and grandmother would have told me: “Good, I have some chores for you.” I give him a few ideas of fun things to try. But it fails. Just a few minutes later, he’s back, with the tugging and the whining.
In spite of colorful playrooms with fun toys, outdoor playgrounds and a more-than-happy-to-play-fetch dog hanging around, I and countless other parents have heard this line just a few too many times. I have often wondered just what my role is in helping my kids find something to do. After my initial suggestion, I personally lean toward the “go figure it out” response, while other more dedicated parents might go play with their kids. (I may have said once or twice, “That’s why you have three other brothers. Go play with one.")
Parents often struggle to understand how, with all these enticements, kids can be bored. Are they spoiled? Do they lack creativity? Clinical psychologist Bethany Cook explains what's happening.
“Kids complain about being bored when they are under-stimulated or don’t know how to interact with their environment in a meaningful way," Cook says. "This can elicit feelings of restlessness, uncertainty and/or low motivation. Most people don’t enjoy the emotional state of boredom and a child complaining about being bored is essentially asking for help shifting their mindset and mood.”
Parents tend to land in two different camps on this topic — they either feel bad for their kid and help give them ideas or play with them, or they send them off to figure it out. Cook adds that both reactions might have their time and place.
Consider the setting
Since Cook’s kids were young, she’s told them “‘boredom is the birthplace of self-driven creativity and innovation,” and when they were very young she’d model ways for them to shift gears, showing them natural curiosity. But this largely depends on the setting.
“I don’t solve boredom issues for my children when nothing is at stake if a meltdown happens. So if it’s a lazy weekend and they get ‘bored’ I rarely step in,” she says. “On the other hand, if we’re someplace like a funeral and the kids start to get bored I most definitely will [model] ways to identify and connect their behaviors to their feelings. I then will suggest two to three things we/they can do that are appropriate to the circumstances.”
So it’s OK to not always have the same reaction to your child’s complaint, and instead consider the environment you’re in.
In a safe environment with few social expectations, boredom can even be beneficial. Child Mind Institute reports that it's been linked to managing a variety of academic tasks well, such as managing long-term assignments, along with flexibility in group projects and with social skills.
Recognize boredom even when they don’t ask for help
Not all kids will be tugging at your pants complaining like my little gems. Some, Cook says, will display other behaviors. Younger kids might become restless, fidgety and often cry, because they aren’t sure how to communicate their problems and feelings. Older kids might also not directly say they are bored, but you might see behaviors like picking a fight with a sibling, or acting out negatively to shift their mood and environment, she adds.
Depending on their age and how much help they need, you can recognize these signs as boredom, but also realize they are sometimes essential to breeding curiosity and creativity. “It’s vital for children to feel bored because it forces them to seek out stimulation that they enjoy: reading, building, drawing, petting the dogs, playing the piano, making mud pies, etc. at the right level.”
Use your judgment on when to step in and when to step back to see what they come up with next.
Determine if boredom is a sign of loneliness
While we’d love our children to go build a STEM-fueled structure when they are bored, sometimes they are actually reaching out for connection rather than ideas on the next activity. Nikki Hurst, a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in social-emotional skills at Embodied, Inc., explains that they might be lonely or seeking connection with a parent in particular. Determine first if they are “craving connection,” she says.
“The child may feel lonely and want connection with the parent. Expressing feelings of boredom is a way for them to get interaction from others. If the child is feeling anxious, tired or hungry, they may not know how to properly express those feelings and it presents as feeling bored,” she says, adding that they might especially do that if it’s been a proven way for the child to receive the attention and support that they are needing.
If a need for connection seems to be the case, parents can spend a bit of time with their kid, organize a playdate or let them know when they’ll next be available to do something fun, so the child can look forward to that.
Use technology as a boredom solution with caution
The easiest parenting move we’ve all done when a kid is bored is to turn on a cartoon, or throw an iPad their way — and sometimes it’s a must, such as during a work call or when dinner is burning on the stove. But Hurst cautions that though it provides a “quick burst” of entertainment, it might make the problem worse in the long run.
“Technology has the potential to reduce attention spans, can be harmful to self-esteem and may not be as mentally stimulating as hands-on creative activities and social interaction,” she says. Luckily for stressed parents, it could just mean updating the apps and shows your kids are spending time with, opting for tech and programs that are based on knowledge, mental health or social skills.
Have a backup plan
If you're fresh out of ideas and do want to help your kid get through a bored afternoon, try these ideas from Cook and Hurst:
Create an activity chart or boredom jar. Sit with the kids and brainstorm go-to activities to try when they’re bored.
Provide limits so they can solve their own problem for a short time: Try to find pockets of time where your kid can "find something to do" until the "next thing," Cook suggests. This can range from five to 55 minutes.
Keep a deck of cards and a small notepad and pen in your purse, or get your kids to put together a little “bag to deter boredom” full of quiet things they can do.
Play I Spy
Model curiosity, which could involve simple things like picking a weed on a walk and stopping to explore with them how it feels and smells and what happens when it's pulled apart, etc.
Finally, Cook encourages parents to determine if boredom is a symptom of being overscheduled, and not knowing what to do when there isn’t an event to go to. Also, determine the difference between regular boredom and more depressive symptoms not to ignore. She says real depression will look more like “sitting around, frustration, anger, emotional eating, self-isolation, zoning out in video games or screens,” rather than short battles with boredom.
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