‘I’m bored!’ How parents can deal with their children’s boredom and what it could mean

Does your child constantly complain about being bored?  Here's what might be behind it.  (Photo: Getty)

Does your child constantly complain about being bored? Here’s what might be behind it. (Photo: Getty)

It’s only four hours on a calm, lazy Saturday morning, and I feel a little boy tugging at my pants. “Mom, I’m bored.” Seriously? Haven’t been home for more than a few waking hours in the last week with school, sports, activities, errands, and life, and that’s all it takes? I resist the urge to say what I really think — and what my mother and grandmother would have told me: “Well, I have some chores for you.” I give him some ideas of fun things to try. But it fails. Just a few minutes later, he was back, tugging and whimpering.

Despite colorful playrooms with fun toys, outdoor playgrounds, and a dog more than happy to play fetch, I and countless other parents have heard this phrase too many times. I have often wondered what my role is in helping my children find something to do. After my initial suggestion, I personally propose the “go figure it out” answer, while other, more devoted 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 this enticement, children can get bored. Are they spoiled? Do they lack creativity? Pediatric psychologist Bethany Cook explains what’s going on.

“Children complain of being bored when they’re under-stimulated or don’t know how to interact with their environment in a meaningful way,” says Cook. “This can lead to feelings of restlessness, uncertainty and/or low motivation. Most people don’t like the emotional state of boredom and a child who complains of being bored is essentially asking for help to change their mindset and mood.

Parents tend to land in two different camps on this matter: either they feel bad for their child and help give them ideas or play with them, or they send them to figure it out. Cook adds that both reactions could have their time and place.

Consider the setting

Ever since Cook’s children were young, she has told them “‘boredom is the birthplace of self-guided creativity and innovation'”, and when they were very young she modeled ways to shift gears, showing them a natural curiosity . But this largely depends on the setting.

“I don’t solve boredom problems for my kids when there’s nothing at stake if a meltdown occurs. So if it’s a lazy weekend and they’re “bored,” I rarely step in,” she says. “On the other hand, if we’re at a place like a funeral and the kids start to get bored, I definitely will [model] ways to identify and link their behaviors to their feelings. So I will suggest two to three things we/they can do that are appropriate to the circumstances.

So it’s okay not to always have the same reaction to your child’s complaints and instead consider the environment you’re in.

In a safe environment with low social expectations, boredom can even be beneficial. Child Mind Institute reports that it has been linked to managing a variety of academic tasks, such as managing long-term assignments, along with flexibility in group projects and social skills.

Acknowledge boredom even when they don’t ask for help

Not all babies will pull your pants whining like my little jewels. Some, Cook says, will exhibit other behaviors. Younger children may become restless, fidgety, and often cry, because they aren’t sure how to communicate their problems and feelings. Older children may not even directly say they’re bored, but you may see behaviors like arguing with a sibling or acting negatively to change their mood and environment, she adds.

Depending on their age and how much help they need, you may recognize these signs as boredom, but also realize that they are sometimes essential for cultivating curiosity and creativity. “It is essential that children feel bored because it forces them to seek stimulation They have fun: reading, building, drawing, petting dogs, playing the piano, making mud pies, etc. at the right level.

Use your judgment about when to step in and when to step back to see what they come up with next.

Complaints of boredom could also be a sign of loneliness.  (Photo: Getty)

Complaints of boredom could also be a sign of loneliness. (Photo: Getty)

Determine if boredom is a sign of loneliness

While we’d love to have our kids go build a STEM-powered facility when they’re bored, sometimes they’re actually looking for connections rather than ideas about the next activity. Nikki Hurst, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in social-emotional skills at Embodied, Inc., explains that they may be lonely or seeking a connection with a particular parent. She first determines if they’re “craving a connection,” she says.

“The child may feel lonely and long for a 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 express those feelings properly and come across as feeling bored,” she says, adding that they might especially if it has been a proven way for the child to get the attention and the support they need.

If the need for connection seems to be the case, parents can spend some quality time with their child, set up a play date, or let them know when they’ll be available to do something fun so the child can look forward to it.

Use technology as a solution to boredom with caution

The easiest parenting move we’ve all made when a child is bored is turning on a cartoon or throwing an iPad their way — and sometimes that’s a must, like during a work call or when dinner is burning on the stove. But Hurst warns that while it provides a “quick burst” of entertainment, it could make the problem worse in the long run.

“Technology has the potential to shorten 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 out parents, it could just mean updating the apps and shows your kids spend time with, opting for technology and programs based around knowledge, mental health or social skills.

Have a backup plan

If you’re out of ideas and want to help your child get through a bored afternoon, try these ideas from Cook and Hurst:

  • Create an activity diagram or boredom jar. Sit down with the kids and brainstorm activities to try when they’re bored.

  • Provide boundaries so they can fix their own problem for a short time: Try to find pockets of time where your child can “find something to do” until the “next thing,” suggests Cook. This can range from five to 55 minutes.

  • Keep a deck of cards, a small notepad, and a pen in your purse, or have your kids put together a small “boredom-deterring bag” filled with quiet things they can do.

  • Play I Spy

  • Model trivia, which could involve simple things like picking up a herb on a walk and stopping to explore with them how it feels and smells and what happens when it’s taken apart, etc.

Finally, Cook encourages parents to determine if boredom is a symptom of being overscheduled and not knowing what to do when there’s no event to go to. Also, he determines the difference between regular boredom and more depressive symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored. He says real depression will look more like “sitting around, frustration, anger, emotional feeding, self-isolation, zoning in video games or on screens,” rather than brief battles with boredom.

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