The Science Behind “I’m Bored”
Last summer, when camps were not in session and there were days before the next tutoring session, I became so tired of hearing, “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do around here,” that I decided to take action. I looked around my house. “Seriously?” I thought to myself. There’s actually SO much to do around here! Just look at all of the dishes piled up in the sink, the cat fur balls matted into the rug, and the half drunk Gatorade bottles strewn throughout the family room. Nothing to do? A smile crossed my face when I realized that I finally had the answer to “I’m bored.”
“Ethan,” I said, “That’s fantastic news that you’re bored! In fact, it’s the best news I’ve heard all day! Since you’re bored and don’t have anything to do, you can help me vacuum, do the dishes, and clean up the Gatorade bottles. Hurry up! Go get the vacuum in the closet.”
“Uh, mom? Umm, I’m really not that bored after all. I think I’m going to Aidan’s house to see if he wants to play basketball.”
From that day on, whenever I heard “I’m bored,” I countered with, “That’s fabulous news!” Rarely do I hear it anymore even in the dog days of summer. But is threatening with chores really the best way to handle the situation? And what do the two words ‘I’m bored’ really mean? How can kids really be uninterested when there are so many opportunities in our area?
Recently, those two words caught my eye as I was perusing The Wall Street Journal. The article, “A Smart Answer to the Season of ‘I’m Bored’,” helped me to understand what boredom really means and why some kids are more susceptible than others. In fact, I was amazed to read that this topic has actually been well researched and studied. Who would have thought?
What the Science Says about Boredom
A 2012 study in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that children who complain of being bored are actually frustrated and struggling to engage. They are often unable to focus their attention and sustain it well enough to get pleasure from an activity. Essentially, boredom sets in when a child:
- has difficulty paying attention to his or her thoughts or feelings;
- is aware that he’s having difficulty paying attention; and
- blames the environment for his unhappy state
James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that those in the midst of boredom exhibit physiological symptoms of stress such as high cortisol levels and increased heart rates; similar studies have also found a correlation between boredom and binge eating and nail biting. So while a bored child may appear to be lazy or idle, the processes going on internally are not so benign. Not surprisingly, Dr. Danckert also discovered that time seems to drag on forever to kids who feel bored. When asked to estimate how long it would take to complete a pattern on the computer, children with a tendency towards boredom were twice as likely to overestimate the time.
According to John Eastwood, an associate professor at York University in Toronto and a lead author of the 2012 study, “When children complain of being bored, parents sometimes are threatened, thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Or they judge themselves as parents, thinking that they failed to bring up their child to have the proper character or skills.” Still, other parents worry that they aren’t providing enough stimulation to their children and they resort to hyper-stimulating quick fixes such as action movies. However, experts agree that the ultimate responsibility for addressing boredom does not lie with the parent, sitter, tutor, or nanny, but with the child. This encourages them to be self-starters.
How to Help Your Child Deal with Feelings of Boredom
When a child says, “I’m bored,” there is clearly much more involved than simply a lack of stimuli or a ‘lazy’ kid. Although some children have a propensity toward boredom, there are certainly things that we can do to help kids combat their difficulties with engaging in activities and focusing their attention. Instead of countering boredom with the threat of chores, here are a few “boredom busters” that might work in your home:
- Don’t pass judgment on the child for being ‘lazy’ – remember that the child is likely feeling frustrated himself.
- Stop everything, sit down with your child and ask what may have triggered her feelings. A moment of silence can help a child come up with her own solutions.
- When nothing seems engaging, kids often revert to video games. In fact, 92% of middle schoolers say that the reason they play video games is because they are bored. Limit time on everything with a screen (TV, cell phone, video games, and computer).
- Don’t assign academic activities that are too difficult or too easy as this can perpetuate the problem. To keep skills sets sharp, think about getting a tutor to provide weekly lessons and assignments that are engaging and not too challenging.
- Resist pulling out toys to keep the child occupied. Instead, encourage imaginative play.
- Brainstorm fun activities with your child (be sure they are her ideas) and jot them down on slips of paper. Fill a jar with these fun ideas.
- Resist overcompensating with highly stimulating activities, such as an action movie. These things are a quick fix and can exacerbate the problem long-term.
The silver lining to boredom in kids is that, when addressed appropriately, it calls for creativity. So the next time you hear, “There’s nothing to do around here!” remember that, in the long run, helping to guide your child to an imaginative solution and not threatening with chores or putting on a hyper-stimulating “band-aid” will have the most positive outcome.
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