I've taken an informal poll and discovered that the words "I'm bored" exasperate parents more than any others uttered by their children. More than cursing; more than whining; more than bickering with siblings.
"You can't be bored," you may insist. "You have a room full of toys and games. If you're feeling benevolent, you might offer to occupy your despondent child by playing with him. But soon enough, he's bored again. So, what's the reason for boredom and can you un-teach it?
Almost every child can learn to reduce his own boredom and you can help him learn how. Once you do, both you and your child will be happily less plagued — he by boredom, you by nagging.
Many children default to boredom rather than working through the frustration of figuring out what to do. They don't want to manage the decision-making process, and so they don't even try.
Another cause of boredom is the assumption that only another person can cure the tedium. When you jump in immediately to resolve it, either by playing or micro-organizing, it communicates that you too believe your child is helpless.
This frustration and sense of helplessness will be reduced when your child discovers that she can resolve her own boredom. It's an older child's version of self-soothing — the skill babies and toddlers adopt in order to learn to sleep through the night and to stop themselves from having tantrums.
Ignoring boredom, offering electronic solutions, or delivering yourself up as a panacea will not teach your child that he is capable of self-created fun. Each time your child utters those fateful words, is a chance to show her she's not helpless and doesn't have to give in to frustration. Here's how:
Ask her to think of three (approved) activity choices. Explain that she needs to pick one of these and engage in it, without complaint, for at least 15 minutes. At first she may not be happy with your solution. But with practice, your child will learn to generate activities independently when bored, and will even continue beyond the designated time, feeling great that she can take care of her own needs. Don't forget lots of praise!
In some cases boredom masks other emotions. If you think your child's boredom is appropriately attention seeking — perhaps he's been playing alone while you've been working — then complimenting him for playing independently and giving him some attention is more appropriate than challenging his boredom. An anxious, sad or scared child may say he's bored because it's hard to be alone. One with poor impulse control or attention or learning difficulties will report boredom because it's easier than the truth: he's experiencing failure. The opposite is less true; children are rarely bored in school because they're smarter than peers.
Bored teenagers are more likely to get into trouble with alcohol and drugs. So teach your child to manage her boredom — to recognize that she's not helpless and can take charge of her life productively and without frustration. Teach your child that boredom is a choice.
DR. SUSAN BARTELL is a nationally recognized child, teen and parenting psychologist and award-winning author. Her latest book is Dr. Susan's Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Parent's Action Plan for Success. You can learn more about Dr. Bartell at www.drsusanbartell.com.