I’m Bored: How To Respond When Your Child Can’t Entertain Himself

What can you do when your child complains of being bored? Well, it’s January-we are all bored! It’s cold and rainy here this week and the opportunities for outside recreation are limited to say the least. Despite the piles of new toys from the holidays, kids quickly resort back to feeling bored at home. For those parents struggling with how to help your child alleviate boredom, here are some ideas that I have heard from my clients over the years:

Typical Parental Responses To A Bored Child:

  1. Every time a child says they are bored, assign them a chore (picked by the parent) to do.
  2. Have the child make a list of things they like to do. When they are bored, have them pick something off the list.
  3. Provide the child with suggestions of things they can do when they are bored. Try to convince the child to do any of them until they forget that they were complaining.
  4. Provide them with some sort of electronic distraction (watch a move, play on the iPad, etc).

Why These Boredom Busters Fail

Sounds like a great list of ideas, right? Well, parents consistently report back that despite all of their effort, these ideas fail miserably over and over again. (except maybe the electronics, but that isn’t really a solution). Why do parents fail?

Because children frequently reject ideas that come from other people.

In fact, a 2010 study conducted at Cornell University actually proved that even when people ASK for creative ideas, they typically reject them. There are two things happening here, according to the Cornell researchers:

1). New ideas trigger uncertainty and that creates a bit of anxiety in most people

2). Even when presented with good evidence for a new idea, people are not usually motivated to use that information.

So, when a child complains of being bored and a parent tries to entice them with a list of creative, new or novel ideas the child will ACTIVELY reject those solutions. And it’s not because they are being oppositional (although, technically they are).

It’s because our brains are wired to reject creative ideas even when we ask for them.

So, what do we do?

We need to learn to let them be bored.

Better yet, encourage it!

Huh?

You heard me.

One of the reasons that children struggle with boredom so much these days is that they are over scheduled. We are running from structured activity to structured activity from the time schools lets out until bedtime. Or, we have devices that play songs, movies or games during all of the periods that we are supposed to be “waiting.” Nope…we are never bored. There is always something going on. So, just like anything else, kids don’t know what to do when they are bored.

Kids Get Bored in Therapy

Despite all the cool stuff I have in my play therapy office, kids get bored of coming to therapy. They come in and complain that they have played with everything or that I should get new stuff. “I’m bored. What are we going to do?”

My response. Quiet. Then usually some variation of

You can’t find anything that you want to do. You have decided it’s boring. It’s okay to be bored in this room. And if you choose, you can decide to get un-bored.”

(Yes, unbored is the technical term I use in therapy. And also a real word, in case you were questioning).

They usually look at me like I’m crazy. They often sit for a while in disbelief that I am not jumping in with an activity. And then, low and behold…they find something to do.

They start building with blocks or they draw or they ask me to play a game or they play in the sand or start a battle between dinosaurs and soldiers. They do something.

And they stop complaining of being bored.

And then I say,

Looks like you found something to do.”

The Science of Boredom

You see, boredom is critical for brain development. For those of you who like to nerd out (like me) on psychological explanations and neuroscience stuff, this article from Health Guidance does a good job of describing the science of boredom without being too much vocabulary mumbo-jumbo.   Let me give you the shortened version of it:

  • Those who are prone to boredom are also most at risk for other serious problems like depression and drug addiction
  • Those with chronic boredom have fewer dopamine (reward center) receptors in the brain. Translation: they require MORE stimulation to become “un-bored”
  • During periods of boredom, areas of the brain related to hypothetical thinking actually work harder.
  • During periods of boredom, new and novel ideas and experiments are born.
  • New and novel events actually trigger the birth of NEW brain cells  which encourages brain plasticity (or the ability to solve problems faster/better).

Encouraging Boredom

So, since we now know that offering new and novel ideas will likely be met with rejection,

but allowing boredom actually encourages children to come up with their own ideas,

which fuels the birth of new brain cells…

Therefore, you are actually making your kids smarter by allowing them to be bored. Think of it as a gift.

Your child says, “I’m bored” and you can respond with,

“Cool, I will help you get some new brain cells to help with that problem.”

Boredom At Work In My House

We had a long and rainy three day weekend this month. We were totally bored. Have I mentioned the three toddlers that run around my house?

Well, we are a pretty “on the go” family and this past weekend, we basically just hung out at home. This lead to some new and novel ideas and inventions in our house.

Specifically, my kids came up with this new and novel use of their Tonka trucks. Didn’t you know that they make excellent race cars?

To be clear, they were pushing each other around first and having so much fun that we had to join in!

 

And, not to be outdone by a bunch of toddlers…my incredibly bored husband took it to a whole new level. Yes, that’s him on a Hoverboard pulling a toddler train that includes my daughter on her bike and my twin boys in their dump trucks.

It took us a few tries to figure out how to tie them together (you can almost see the new brain cells forming, right).

You can’t make this stuff up.

 

 

 

Final Thoughts On Boredom

  1. It’s good to be bored. It promotes good brain development and creativity.
  2. Your ideas for reducing boredom are going to be rejected, so don’t even bother trying.
  3. Kids come up with cool stuff when they are bored.
  4. It’s okay to join in sometimes and get unbored together!

Please, let me know what kind of fun you have the next time your kids (or you) are completely and utterly bored!

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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