We’ve all felt the feeling of boredom. For some of us it might have been longer ago than others. Many of us have busy and full lives these days, but some children (and some adults) are more prone to experiencing boredom.
While it is normal to feel bored from time to time, a low tolerance for the feeling of boredom has been associated with a number of concerning outcomes including depression and hostile aggression. Those who are boredom prone are also more likely to procrastinate, feel insecure and more likely value the end product of activity (eg payment for work) rather than extract joy and meaning from the activity itself. Boredom has also been cited as a factor in studies of substance use, internet addiction, dropping out of school and marital issues.
Like most things psychological, a child’s experience of boredom is usually a sum of parts. Some of the parts are outside of the child and have to do with a lack of stimulation in the environment. Other parts are within the child and have to do with tolerance, attention, impulsivity and an ability to create interesting activities for themselves.
When most people experience boredom, they feel it as an unpleasant experience that has low energy and describe it as “unexciting”, “tired” or “depressed”. A smaller number of people experience boredom as unpleasant, but in a high energy way. High energy boredom is usually described as “frustrating” and a precursor for anger.
Whether it’s the high energy or low energy type, boredom is an unpleasant feeling. Indeed, that feeling of unpleasantness could well be boredom’s biggest contribution to our lives. Boredom is a little emotional “blimp” to tell us that there is more that we need to be doing or adding to our lives.
If boredom’s function is to tell us there’s more we need to do, then perhaps we should be explaining boredom’s function to children rather than running around trying to “fix” or cater to their boredom. We need to provide opportunities and guidance to get children to use their boredom as a prompt to getting creative about action.
Different members of your family may have different tolerance to boredom. Also, there will be differences in what each member of your family perceives as being stimulating. When you are busy, down time can be seen as a luxury. For your children, however, especially if they have not learned how to manage down time, it might be quite under-stimulating.
Don’t expect a child to “free-range” if they haven’t had enough experience or practice at this before.
There is a growing movement around mindfulness and learning to “sit with” feelings, but don’t expect that your child will be able to sit with feelings if they haven’t had some guidance. Helping your child manage boredom will take a little coaching. Encourage children to recognise and label their boredom and then to decide whether they want to do something with it. Do they want to try to sit with that feeling or do something about it (maybe something other than just complaining to you about the feeling?)
So, some top tips to help children learn to manage or cope with boredom:
- Provide a choice of activities – don’t give children too many options for what might be available nor give them a blank slate – just a list of viable options.
- Invest some time in getting the children started on an activity. If it has been awhile since there has been time to fill, they may need help with some momentum. Then once they are rolling along, you can step aside.
- Make sure you provide some adequate resources. These don’t have to be expensive, nor linked to the internet. Sometimes you need to just get children started on building a cubby out of old sheets, or starting a rock garden outside or cutting out pictures from junk mail to make a book mark. Try to mix up the activities so that your children have more than one source of entertainment in their boredom fighting tool box – try a game of “I Spy” rather than passing your mobile phone to the back seat of the car.
- If the task that you need to do is inherently dull, provide meaning and make the goal of the activity clear. Be sure that you provide a reason why you want them to do a task that might be boring. “We need to pick up all of these things on the floor so that we have enough space for the next thing we might do”.
- Also, if a task truly is boring, try to change it up. Try to see if you can turn a dull task into a game (pick up all the things on the floor in rainbow order – red first!) or make up a silly song to sing while you get the job done (ask my youngest about the teeth and shoes song). Boring tasks might earn a raffle ticket for a surprise treat – the more tickets you get in a raffle, the more chance you have to win. Better still, after a few coaching sessions, challenge your children to turn the task into a game or song themselves.
- Be sure you are matching the activities available to your child to their level. This might be especially important if they are spending the school holidays in the care of someone who does not know them very well and might have too many “bubsy” activities lined up.
Boredom, like other feelings, is a sign from our body that something needs doing. Without it, I wonder if anyone would have done anything creative or new???
Help your children to learn to use the feeling of boredom as a trigger to sit and watch the feeling or to get creative.