What Does “I’m Bored” Really Mean?

The Answer May Surprise You!

Imagine your child telling you “I’m bored.” I think every parent has heard that phrase from their child and it seems to occur more often in the summer when there are fewer scheduled activities.

Your first reaction might be to assume your child has run out of things to do and is asking for ideas or for you to schedule a fun activity. While that is sometimes what it means, more often it means something very different.

A 2012 study in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that children who complain of being bored are actually frustrated and struggling to fully engage in an activity. They might have challenges with focusing or sustaining focus on an activity.

According to the study, boredom sets in when a child:

  • has difficulty paying attention internally, such as thoughts or feelings
  • has difficulty paying attention to stimuli required to enjoy an activity
  • becomes aware that they are not focusing
  • blames the environment for lack of attention

Children who complain of boredom often show physical symptoms of stress including high cortisol levels and faster heart rate. And they double their estimate of the amount of time an activity might take or the amount of time they have been bored. Children may beg to watch high action TV and movies or to play video games, not because there is nothing else to do, but because those activities keep their attention and distract them from stressors.

So, how should you respond to “I’m bored”? First, take a breath – it will not help if both of you are frustrated. Don’t blame yourself or your child for the boredom. Instead sit down and calmly ask what triggered those feelings and what they think might help them not feel bored. If they are bored with academic activities it makes sense to find out if the academics are too difficult. Testing a student for attention or focus issues and academic skill levels have solved the mystery of why many have been “bored” with school activities. Resist solving the issue by making yourself your child’s activity director, which assumes “bored” means “nothing to do.”

Looking at boredom differently is the first step to reduce the number of times you hear “I’m bored” at your house.

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