Understanding boredom in kids is serious business. A mother of a 7-year old boy sat in my office, clearly distressed and said, “I take away my son’s technology and tell him to go play but he has no patience and becomes frustrated which turns into aggression directed at his younger brother.” Nothing seemed to be working to dislodge his lack of enthusiasm and it was starting to take a toll on everyone in the house.
It's not only parents who are concerned with boredom but researchers as well. Boredom is associated with an increase in rates of depression and anxiety (3), as well as triggering binge-eating leading to obesity (1). It can interfere with learning in the classroom and contributes to school drop-out (2). A survey of US teens revealed that those who reported being bored were 50% more likely than their peers to become involved with illegal drugs, alcohol, and smoking (1,4).
Unfortunately, boredom is prone to being misunderstood and leads to failing solutions such as reducing screen time, altering structured activities and instruction, as well as trying to resolve boredom by letting kids sit in it for a while. When boredom becomes characteristic of a child, we cannot afford to take it at face value. Engagement with the world is one of the best gauges of vitality and overall psychological health. When boredom is reported on a more frequent basis by a child, it can be a sign that development may be getting stuck.
What is boredom?
To answer the question of boredom, we need to first consider what is missing in a child who repeatedly tells us they are bored. A child over the age of three should ideally show signs of wanting to ‘do it myself’ with budding autonomy and independence becoming evident. They should also indicate an interest in learning about new and unknown things.
Kids who are thriving will often be able to shift into play or creative solitude when they are apart from their adults. Signs of vitality include having one’s own ideas, initiative, intentions, and interests. Children should be known for their imagination and curiosity, all of which go missing when a child is characteristically bored.
According to Gordon Neufeld, the problem with kids who are bored is one of emergent energy (5). The bias that drives a child to become their own separate person or independent being is missing or subdued. The word boredom comes from the word ‘to bore,’ indicating an internal void where energy should be coming from. Humans are born with instincts and emotions that should propel them towards seeking and engaging with their environment. Boredom indicates a lack of emergent energy or venturing forth spirit, a necessity if a child is to grow to become independent.
One of the problems with boredom is that when kids experience this void, they start looking for things to fill the internal hole and as a result, we mistakingly believe they need more stimulation. The more stimulation we give a bored child, the more we will miss what is driving their lack of emergent energy in the first place.
What gets missed with boredom is that there is no energy coming from within the child. The bias to become their own person is missing or flat lining. Instead of springing into action there is little energy or signs that they assume responsibility for their decisions or direction for their life. The problem is that the bias to emerge is a fragile energy that thrives only under the right conditions.
How can we help the bored child?
The answer to boredom that has become characteristic of a child is not to tell them to go play or to let them sit in this state, which will only widen and deepen the child's internal void and lead to further agitation. While it is true that we will all likely experience boredom from time to time, special attention needs to be given to kids who consistently seem to dwell in this place.
The best measure to helping a bored child spring back to life needs to aim at the level of emotions and instincts. We need to get underneath boredom and focus on fueling what propels a child forward in the first place.
The most critical human need that drives seeking and engagement in one’s life is not the provision of food or shelter but of relationship. When a child is vacant and missing it will be their relationship with caring adults that will nourish them back to life. It is releasing them from their preoccupation with relational hunger that will free them from their greatest hunger. These caring adult relationships may need to help a child find the tears they need so that once emptied, they can start the process of feeling full again.
As a child goes missing, it is the adults in their life that will need to keep them moving – from getting them outside, to playing, to reading or doing schoolwork together. Instead of expecting them to figure things out, an adult will need to take the lead and compensate for what is not there until a child is restored to vitality again. It is also important to consider the reasons for the lack of emergent energy in a child - from too much separation in their close relationships, a lack of deep relationships with adults, or wounding from peers that has hardened the emotional system.
While the reasons for a child's stuckness varies, the pathway to finding a way through does not. It is about filling them up with relationship so that the void inside is filled with us. When we kick start their heart, it will surge back to life and bring with it the spontaneous engagement in life that we long for. When a child has their emergent energy restored, they will venture forth and figure out who they are.
What every bored child needs is an offer to fill them up with an offer they can’t refuse – that of relationship and rest. It seems so simple but is yet so profound, the place that our children spring forth from is the same one where we are firmly planted.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and the Director of Kid’s Best Bet Counselling and Family Resource Center. For more information www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.org.
Ulrike E. Nett, Elena C. Daschmann, Thomas Goetz, and Robert H. Stupinsky. How accurately can parents judge their children’s boredom in school? Front. Psychology, 30 June 2016, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00770
Shane W. Bench and Heather C. Lench, On the function of boredom. Sci.2013, 3(3), 459-472.
Michael Spaeth, Karina Weichold, Rainer Sibereisen. The development of leisure boredomin early adolescence: Predictors and longitudinal associations with delinquency and depression. Developmental Psychology, Vol 51(10), Oct, 2015. pp. 1380-1394.
Gordon Neufeld, 2013, Level I Intensive: Making Sense of Kids. Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, neufeldinstitute.org.
DEVELOPMENTAL SCIENCE translated into PRACTICAL LOVE.