The reader asked a series of questions about adolescent boredom. My somewhat rambling responses follow.
“WHY ARE TEENAGERS SO EASILY BORED?”
Adolescence is driven by dissatisfaction, the young person no longer content to be defined and treated as a child anymore, wanting to become older but not sure how, more boredom part of the price they pay for the uncertain developmental journey they now undertake—having more times of not knowing what to do with themselves.
The adolescent dilemma is this. More than ever before the young person wants freedom to be independent, but what he or she discovers is that freedom is one birthplace of boredom. Now that you have more choice, what are you going to do with it? In many cases, the adolescent simply doesn’t know. The past is much clearer (“How I don’t want to be any more”) than the future (“How I want to be instead.”) So rather than feel excited, the teenager feels at a loss to know how to fill the void of opportunity that has been created.
Parents see this dilemma at the end of each school year. The young person is so excited to have school out and to have no more class schedule and homework to deal with, and then within days comes the crash: “There’s nothing to do! I’m so bored!” What a letdown! It’s like seeing an older person sail into the anticipated “doing nothing years” of retirement, free at last from the job, only to discover how depressingly boring life without a work schedule and purpose has suddenly become.
“WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE TIME WE LIVE IN THAT MAKES BOREDOM SO EASY FOR ADOLESCENTS TO COME BY?”
One factor that can make adolescent boredom both easier and more difficult to manage is the advent of mass and multiple sources of electronic entertainment that are available in most homes. Boredom is now easier to quell in the moment by turning to a variety of electronic screens (TV, computer, cell phone, hand held Internet device, game player, DVD player, for example) and in an instant escape into high stimulation distraction that is readily available any boring time of day or night.
Boredom, however, is also more difficult to quell. This availability of electronic distraction makes managing boredom more problematic because of two losses that it can create, both of which increase the predisposition to boredom. First, family has become more boring because there is less spoken communication and meaningful time together (with everyone glued to their respective screens or talking to the side of each other’s head.) And second, some resourcefulness to actively self-entertain has been lost because passive entertainment is so easy to access.
In addition, electronic entertainment may quell boredom in the moment, but it increases boredom as well because after one adjusts to the latest form or norm of the high stimulation, it loses lasting value and the young person is back on empty again. Now it takes “bigger and better,” more sensational and extreme and novel content, to attract ever restless and distractible consumer attention back again.
Then there is a social price to be paid. Tolerance for boredom, particularly among adolescents, has been greatly reduced in a world where escape into the many screens of electronic entertainment is so easily accomplished. We have created a culture in which many young children and adolescents have grown used to being electronically over-stimulated from birth, a condition that makes meeting the offline routine and repetitive demands of home and school difficult for many of them to endure. And as on-line escape increasingly substitutes for off-line engagement, as virtual world competence is gained at the expense of real world experience, practice dealing with real life challenges, shouldering real life responsibilities, and developing real life skills can decline. Paying attention and sitting still for offline demands can feel really boring to do.
Signs of boredom are distractibility and restlessness that are often labeled “attention deficit”, “hyperactivity,” or both—youthful behaviors that are challenging for adults to manage. So to solve the problems of inattention and restlessness we have partly culturally created, we prescribe psycho-stimulant medication to help unruly adolescents focus and settle down. In the process, young people are taught the habit of managing themselves psychologically through regularly taking medication.
And now this leads to yet another problem—a secondary, usually illicit, market for these high stimulant medications. “Study drugs” young people in high school and college call them, trafficking in these substances when crammed for time or wishing to give themselves an edge, to escape the rule of boredom, focus their attention and concentrate their energy to elevate academic performance. “I’ve got to focus on finals starting next week,” the young man sighed, “How boring is that? So it’s about time to get my boost.”
“DO YOU THINK PARENTS KEEPING THEIR KID MORE INDOORS FOR FEAR OF LETTING THEM OUT TO PLAY CONTRIBUTES TO BOREDOM?”
As the outdoor urban world and the natural world have been portrayed as dangerous by alarming news stories competing for public attention, protective parents have kept their children more indoors where they are considered to be safer and less at risk of getting harmed. However, life indoors means more screen time, being entertained at the expense of entertaining themselves, prone to escaping boredom and thus increasing boredom as they grow. The adolescent field of play becomes drastically reduced and growth possibilities diminished when getting outdoors and into the natural world is discouraged or forbidden.
“SHOULD PARENTS FEEL GUILTY WHEN THEIR CHILD IS BORED?”
When it comes to children feeling bored, parents should not treat that feeling as though something is wrong with the child or themselves. Boredom is not something to feel guilty about. Boredom is simply a normal response to not knowing what to do with one’s energy, not knowing how to direct one’s life at the moment, feeling at a momentary loss about finding a meaningful way to connect with oneself, other people, or the world. Boredom is a functional. It creates a state of dissatisfaction that motivates people to find something meaningful to do, be it of the passively entertaining or of the self-entertaining kind. Everyone gets bored. Parents can share what they do when they get bored to show what works for them, and they can brainstorm with the child what might generate interest for her. Vacation, because it often takes the child away from accustomed pursuits, often creates some boredom until different activities and involvements can be found—part of the pleasure of discovery that comes with taking a time out and getting away.
“HOW CAN PARENTS RESPOND WHEN THEIR CHILD COMPLAINS ABOUT FEELING BORED?”
Here are a couple ways. Sometimes parents will treat the “I’m bored” complaint as an invitation. “Since you don’t know what to do with yourself, and there’s plenty that needs doing around the place, I’m happy to give you some things to do.” Or the parent may say, “Since I’m not doing anything important at the moment, how about you and I do something fun together?” In the first instance, useful work gets done. In the second, enjoyable companionship is shared.
“WHAT ARE ANTIDOTES FOR BOREDOM IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS?”
Consider three. First, take the child outside to take back the active pleasures of the outdoor life and connecting with the wonders of the natural world. Second, spend daily time with self and with family with all electronic devices and screens turned off. And third, invest lifetime in meaningful offline, non-spectator, and resourcefulness-building activities like helping, volunteering, playing a sport, exercising, creative expression, inventing, problem-solving, learning something new, or working on a hobby or project or for a good social cause.
Boredom is normal in adolescence. It can be to the good when it generates dissatisfaction that causes a teenager to actively entertain and invest themselves. It can be to the bad when it only leads to passive electronic escape. The role of parents is to encourage the first alternative, and to moderate the second.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.). Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
I welcome reader questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Loss of a Best Friend