by Dr. Chris Ladish
Dr. Chris Ladish is a pediatric neuropsychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer of Pediatric Behavioral Health at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Network. She serves on the steering committee of the Kids’ Mental Health, Pierce County collaborative and resides in Washington with her spouse and their two teen-age children. Further family Covid support information may be found at the following sites: https://www.kidsmentalhealthwa.org and https://www.marybridge.org/covid19/additional-resources/
“I’m bored.” “There is nothing to do around here.” “I’m tired of being inside all the time.” Sound familiar? These, among other statements, are phrases spoken more and more by our children and others as we approach the marathon journey of a worsening pandemic, school closures, and impending inclement weather. But boredom does not have to be a bad thing and can even be beneficial.
In general, expressions of boredom underscore internal energy, the brain’s craving for stimulation of some sort, and an absence of knowing what to do. It is the mind’s way of indicating, “I’m feeling ready, but I don’t know what for.” Capitalizing on that energy can be the key to solving a boredom crisis. But children may need guidance, ideas, and prompting to focus their physical and mental energies in a productive direction. With a little encouragement and reinforcement for their willingness to think out of the box and to engage in some self-directed problem solving, children can begin to independently recognize and navigate periods of boredom. Working beyond boredom helps children develop critical thinking and executive functioning skills such as initiation, planning and mental flexibility. These are essential skills for addressing novel situations.
Incredibly challenging about the current pandemic is that not all children may feel “bored”. Rather, many are expressing sadness, frustration and anger about the current restrictions they face due to Covid 19. Like a child looking through a toy store window, many have no shortage of ideas about what they would like to be enjoying; the challenge is simply that these activities feel out of reach. Schools and sporting events are closed, time with others is greatly limited, and the novelty of being home with time on one’s hand has lost its flair long ago. Table top activities, games, and even, yes, the internet, may only go so far. Children are finding it hard to mobilize and energize themselves internally to come up with new and creative things to do. In short, they are beginning to experience a sense of learned helplessness as the challenges of Covid endure, and they are unable to see a predictable end in sight. This is where parents can have the greatest impact.
To meet the challenge of boredom or boredom masking as irritability, parents can implement several key strategies to help their children move in the right direction.
First, make sure that you know your child’s boredom signs. Does he or she complain? Seek attention? Wander about the house? Stand in front of the open refrigerator? Channel surf? Identifying early boredom signs will allow you to prompt your child earlier about strategies that may be helpful.
Second, consider making a “what to do when there is nothing to do” list with your child. Engage his/her creative mind and place things on the list that are both new and old, quick and more time intensive, active and quiet activities. Consider trying new things as well as dusting off old interests.
Third, when your child indicates that he or she is feeling bored, or you identify their boredom signs, direct them to their list. Remind them of all the activities they helped place on the list (a good list will have 20 or more activities listed). The key is to encourage your child to think for him or herself and to engage in some problem solving and creativity without always relying on you to be the activity planner. This of course is age dependent and will require more of your support when your child is younger.
Children will have varying abilities to respond to boredom depending on their age.
Preschool children: 3 to 5-year olds live moment to moment. Their boredom is also moment to moment and can often be easily redirected with novel toys and games, creative play scenarios, special time with parents, and seated activities. In this age group, hands-on activities like coloring or drawing, looking at books, and engaging in imaginary play with stuffed animals, dolls or action figures can be enjoyable. Adding in brief periods of activity is also always helpful.
School-aged children: 5-12-year olds can engage their minds independently for longer periods. They may enjoy board games, building, reading from a favored series, or creating art for a loved one. For example, knowing that a creation will soon be hanging on a loved one’s wall can provide a great sense of accomplishment and pride. Consider also reaching out to make someone feel special by painting a garden rock or making a sign for a neighbor or essential worker at the grocery store. And again, don’t forget the importance of physical activities. Energy expenditure is very important to help bodies feel more relaxed and ready for more sedentary activities. Consider challenges of sit-ups, pushups, wall sits or squats. Building a fort or having a scavenger hunt can also become an exciting adventure.
For working parents, it can be hard to feel constantly present for the little ones who seem so in need and deserving of our attention. Remember that kids will be better at delaying their reward of your time by having visual and contextual aides. For example stating, “we will play after you watch your program” or “after dinner.” Consider setting a kitchen or sand timer and letting your child know you will be present when the time runs out. Don’t forget to express your pleasure at your child’s independence and ability to manage their own boredom.
Teenagers: Teens, while fairly independent during the day, may still experience periods of boredom. During this stage of development, it is helpful to foster your child’s internal awareness of their own boredom cues. Helping teens understand that boredom may represent a need for some form of activity is also helpful. Activities to consider can include taking up a new language via an ap, writing a short story, getting outdoors for a walk or hike, looking into an online course, creating a video or podcast, working on a new skill such as photography, knitting or crafting, meeting with friends online or practicing moments of mindfulness. Reminding teens that activities can “break the boredom feeling” will encourage their first steps. Don’t forget that teens enjoy feeling helpful and being recognized for their effort. Helping with house chores and projects can be a win-win situation for you and your child.
Remember, boredom doesn’t have to be “bad”. It may simply be a sign of readiness for something new. Helping children recognize their boredom signs and independently problem-solve how to address their own boredom will help create flexibility, independence, creativity and increased attention……all while having fun.