5 ways to help kids make the most of feeling bored
It’s a refrain of childhood, but it rarely fails to ignite irritation in parents and caregivers: “I’m bored.” When kids say they’re bored, or use the phrase’s not-so-distant cousin, “there’s nothing to do,” it’s understandable why parents and caregivers are quick to get miffed (“You have so many toys!” “Read a book!” “Go outside and play!”), but it’s important to keep in mind that your approach to the situation can either exacerbate or assuage a child’s frustration.
“When kids say they’re bored or that they don’t like being bored, adults can use it as an opportunity to both help kids get comfortable with the feeling and show them that it will pass,” says Tovah Klein, a child development psychologist, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” According to Klein, it’s important for kids to experience boredom, as it can enhance their problem-solving skills, as well as help them develop creativity and build curiosity.
While doing boredom “the right way” may sound counterintuitive, there are a few ways parents and caregivers can optimize a child’s downtime so “I’m booooored” turns into something truly productive. Here are five expert-backed tips for guiding kids to the bright side of boredom.
1. Let children know boredom is OK
Boredom can be an uncomfortable feeling, so kids may have a hard time tolerating it and instinctively label it negatively. Parents and caregivers’ first goal should be to help kids feel more comfortable, says Klein. Letting children know that boredom is normal will help them work through it more effectively. “When children express that they don’t like being bored, let them know that it’s OK and that boredom isn’t a bad thing — we all get bored sometimes,” Klein says. “Express to them that they’ll figure out what they want to do or engage in when they’re ready.”
2. “Go play” doesn’t mean no supervision
While the goal is to have kids find an activity they’ll enjoy on their own, parents and caregivers still should be vigilant when kids are working through boredom in order to prevent dangerous situations. “When boredom takes over and supervision isn’t there, kids can find themselves in trouble,” says Dr. Brandon Smith, general academic pediatrics fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “Parents and caregivers should make sure they continue to supervise kids’ time outside, and look around the house for safety issues, like medication or cleaners left out.”
3. Take stock of their habits around play
According to Klein, boredom can be a sign that a child is overstimulated on a daily basis. “If a child’s time is too structured and adult-led, they may not know how to come up with their own ideas of what to do,” she says. For parents and caregivers who suspect a child may be too stimulated, Smith recommends creating a few relaxing spaces around the house and keeping some time open throughout the day for kids to take “brain breaks,” where they can read, draw or just zone out while looking out the window. Kids should take these breaks for at least 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon, and they can sprinkle smaller ones throughout the day, he advises.
4. Be a source of guidance
You may have to offer a little guidance to kids who aren’t used to working through boredom on their own. “If a child is used to being entertained or played with much of the time, you may have to meet them in the middle with a few suggestions,” says Klein. “Say something like: ‘Let’s think about what you want to do. You can help me make dinner or you can find something to play with.’” Once you make suggestions, let kids take it from there. “Suggest an activity, but then back off and let the child know that it’s fine to feel bored,” Klein says. “When kids know they can take their time figuring out what to do, they’ll get better at coming up with their own ideas.”
Another option is to loosely prepare for boredom by creating a list of activities with kids in advance. “By doing this, kids will have a few ideas to refer to for guidance when boredom pops up,” notes Smith.
5. Evaluate your idea of boredom
Do you get upset every time you hear “I’m bored”? If so, your irritation might make it more challenging for your child to find something constructive to do. “If a parent or caregiver gets upset at a child who says they’re bored, the child can feel the negativity, which may make an uncomfortable feeling even more uncomfortable,” says Klein.
A 2007 study from the University of Washington found that kids as young as 18 months engage in something called “emotional eavesdropping,” which means they take cues from their parents on how to react and behave. “Children have their emotional antenna up all the time, and they learn from eavesdropping on the behaviors of others,” researchers wrote. Put another way: If you get annoyed by a child’s boredom, there’s a good chance they’ll get annoyed by it, too.
While few parents and caregivers would pass up the opportunity to have a child instinctively “go play” every time boredom crops up, the reality is, it doesn’t always work that way. Many kids need to be nudged in the right direction by adults — even if that just means approaching boredom with the right attitude. “Adults sometimes put a ‘bad’ interpretation on boredom when it doesn’t have to be that way,” notes Klein. “When parents and caregivers help kids figure out how to deal with boredom, it teaches them a number of things, including how to be by themselves and with their thoughts.”
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