Although parents can discount Adolescent Boredom (“My teenager is often bored, so what?”) it’s wiser for them to pay more careful attention.
Susceptibility to boredom is built into the onset of adolescence and accounts for frequently feeling more distracted and "at loose ends” when the separation from childhood begins. And as the teenage years unfold, boredom can become “the Devil’s playground” when troublesome choices for coping with tedium and monotony are made. Take each problematic outcome one at a time.
Feeling at loose ends
Think of it this way. The infant seems born full of wonder, the young child explores that world with endless curiosity, and the older child cultivates enjoyable involvements and often shares parental interests for closeness sake. The actively engaged child is not a very strong candidate for boredom compared to the adolescent. Consider why.
Around ages 9 to 13, the young person begins pushing against and pulling away from parents as the adolescent separation from childhood begins. With this change comes some degree of necessary loss. To recast her or himself in more grown up terms, the adolescent begins to detach from childish ways and wants in order to proceed more independently. Now old attachments are let go, as in word and action the young person communicates: “I no longer want to be defined and treated as just a child.” So she gives up being cuddled, demands more privacy, and prefers the company of peers to parents who she now finds "boring," for example.
At this time, beloved hobbies, entertainments and games, appearance and dress, ways of relating, old comforts and supports, precious toys and objects, are painfully let go to make room for growth ahead. To act older one must give up appearing younger. The problem is that emptying oneself of childish attachments creates a void inside. Having cut himself adrift from childhood, he feels at loose ends – no longer a child but not yet the person who comes next. Disconnected, without traditional interests to rely on, how is he going to fill himself back up with identity, meaning, purpose, direction, and pleasure now?
Enter boredom, in two forms: Emptiness and of Entrapment.
The young person can experience Emptiness when at a loss of knowing how to occupy and entertain oneself. For example, suddenly confronted with more unstructured time than she was used to, a sixth grader can become bored with extended vacation from school. The more rebellious young person can experience Entrapment when forced to continue doing what lacks personal meaning or mattering. For example, refusing to take nothing of interest there, and bridling at the daily rules and work requirements, an adolescent can become bored attending school. The problem is too much freedom in the first case; and too little freedom in the second.
One common hallmark of early adolescence is more distractibility from more complexity in life to attend to (from puberty and secondary school, for example), and from the loss of childhood interests as a source of traditional engagement. Empty of old pursuits and pastimes, lots of new things attract adolescent wonder and curiosity, but few things seem to sustain interest very long. Disenchanted with old pursuits, young adolescents are more easily distracted and more easily bored. Just as a wandering attention afflicts many young adolesents, many also have a harder time enduring what is uninteresting. This is why at this juncture they need more parental supervision to stay focused during a distracting time, and more parental support in finding new interests to replace those of childhood that have been cast away.
Although some young people have an anchoring interest from childhood (artistic, athletic, technical, or outdoors, for example) they can carry over into adolescence, I believe many do not. This becomes part of their adolescent challenge: having separated from childhood, how to replenish themselves and make life full of constructive interest and challenge again. Hopefully, parents can play an encouraging and supportive role.
The Devil's Playground
As the teen years unfold, short-term and long-term boredom are not the same. Boredom over a day or so generates dissatisfaction that can often be relieved by learning to tolerate the discomfort and creating fresh interest to engage with. Long-term boredom over days into weeks, however, can take a heavier emotional toll. Over time, boredom from protracted Emptiness can generate feelings of restlessness and anxiety; and over time boredom from protracted Entrapment can generate feelings of alienation and anger. In both cases of long term boredom, the outcome is a measure of emotional pain.
Expressions of painful boredom are important for parents to attend.
Fatigue: “I’m tired of doing what I don’t like.”
Lethargy: “I don’t have energy to do anything.”
Restlessness: “I need something to do.”
Frustration: “I can’t do what I want.”
Anxiety: “I don’t know what to do.”
Anger: “I hate what I have to do.”
Sadness: “I miss what I used to enjoy doing.”
Helplessness: “I can’t think of anything to do.”
Apathy: “I have nothing I care about doing.”
Depression: “There’s no point in doing anything.”
Desperation: “I’ve got to find something to do!”
I think parents should let the adolescent know that they take statements of boredom seriously, and should it become more lasting discomfort than passing dissatisfaction, it is something they want to hear and talk about. They might say something like this. “If ever you get bored and can’t find a good way to relieve it, let’s talk. Not all boredom feels the same, and most boredom comes with other unhappy feelings too. Maybe I can help you figure out what’s going on and what to do.”
Boredom can afflict young people at every stage along their adolescent way, and letting boredom do one’s thinking can lead to a vast array of troubling choices. For example, the early adolescent (9 to13), now more disinterested in doing homework than in childhood, declares: “This is so boring; I’ll watch TV instead!” (So, boredom leads to escape entertainment). Or the mid-adolescent (13 to 15), hanging out with a group of listless peers, declares: “This is so boring; let’s do something crazy!” (So, boredom leads to exciting risk taking). Or the late adolescent, feeling a dull party needs livening up, declares: “This is so boring; let’s see who can drink the most the fastest!” (So, boredom leads to substance experimentation). Or the last stage adolescent in Trial Independence (18 to 23), hating the daily drudgery of an entry level job declares: “This is so boring; I’ll skim a little money they’ll never miss!” (So, boredom leads to breaking rules).
Whether from emptiness or entrapment, boredom begins as state of disinterest that becomes painful the longer it is protracted; and the longer it is protracted, the more risk there is of impulsively seeking troubling measures for relief -- like the various forms of Escape, Excitement, Substance Experimentation, or even Rule Breaking mentioned above.
I believe boredom and seeking relief from boredom can be a factor in such problems as school discipline, school failure, dropping out of school, law breaking, procrastination, depression, substance abuse, thrill seeking, careless accidents, and even in social violence. In adolescence, when you hate having nothing to do or you hate what you have to do, you can feel that doing anything is justified to break boredom’s hold. So defending their actions to the arresting officer, the teenagers declare: “We only did this because we were bored and wanted something to do!”
Just because times of boredom are normal in adolescence doesn’t mean they are always okay. Parents need to understand how boredom can be a painful loss of abiding interest, and how distractibility and and impuslive choices can be a frantic search for an interest that will hold. The caution for parents is to remain watchful to see that the young person has sufficient tolerance and resourcefulness to safely manage this experience without allowing it to become overwhelming and lead them astray, and when it does allowing hard consequences to instruct.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.)
Next week’s entry: Adolescence as a More “Outlaw” Age