For some parents, the change can be pretty dramatic.
Once favored companions of their child, with the onset of adolescence parents become duller company compared with the young person’s friends. In addition, beloved activities that used to provide hours of fun for the child start losing power to entertain. And where the child had much they wanted to do, the young adolescent can lie around complaining of life’s dreariness: “I’m so bored!”
How can this child who was so full of wonder become a young adolescent mired in early adolescent boredom? It’s important that parents understand what’s going on and what they can helpfully do.
Start here. One motivation for separating and detaching from childhood (around ages 9 – 13) is boredom. Old childish possessions, activities, enjoyments, relationships become less satisfying than they used to be. That’s what boredom is: an expression of dissatisfaction with the old, existing state of things that announces a readiness and restlessness for change. Boredom can be an opening for growth. This is why parents suggest the young person take the initiative: “Maybe you can find a new or different way to entertain yourself.” If possible, they want the young person to draw on personal resourcefulness and creativity to fill the void.
When early adolescent boredom arrives, it usually comes in a double dose because two types of boredom can arise. There is Type One Boredom from Emptiness of Interest: “I can’t stand having nothing to do!” And there is Type Two Boredom from Entrapment in Disinterest: “I can’t stand what I have to do!”
So now parents can feel caught in a double bind. If they don’t suggest some activity, the adolescent is stuck with nothing to do. And if they do suggest an activity, the adolescent complains how this is something they would hate doing. “Parents are no help!”
The pain of boredom.
When the adolescent complains how “boredom is a pain,” she isn’t lying. What is hard to “stand” about boredom? It can hurt in a variety of empty ways -- as a state of loneliness, as a state of aimlessness, and as a state of pointlessness.
When detachment causes disconnection, there can be loneliness. “I don’t know how to connect with myself, with other people, with the world in a good feeling way.”
When detachment causes dissatisfaction, there can be aimlessness. “I don’t know what to do with myself for myself to cause me to feel good about myself.”
When detachment causes disaffection, there can be pointlessness. “I can’t find anything that means as much as what I’ve given up and lost.”
It’s no psychological accident that we use comparable linguistic images to describe the impact of two common feelings, boredom and fear. We routinely say that one can be bored or scared “silly,” “stiff,” “out of my mind,” or even “to death.” Like fear, boredom is not a state to be treated casually or dismissed. It is serious emotional business.
Early adolescent boredom is not for parents to criticize, but to understand. They need to appreciate the developmental role of boredom at this vulnerable age, possible problems that youthful boredom can cause, and what helpful role they might have to play.
The role of early adolescent boredom.
Think of early adolescence as the “first stage of moving out of home,” the second being the beginning of the last stage, after the high school years when the young person physically departs daily parental care. In early adolescence, the young person is “moving out” of childhood, and this move entails casting off much that the child loved and valued to clear the way for older growth ahead. “Empty the old to make room for the new,” seems to be the operating principle. Now old interests, activities, values, beloved possessions, and old ways of relating to parents, lots of “kid stuff,” are all let go.
Self-rejection rules as through words and actions parents are put on notice: “I no longer want to be treated and defined as just a child anymore!” At a loss, the young person knows how she doesn’t want to be, more than how she does. And now dissatisfaction of boredom can generate a lot of negativity. Trying to help, parents can come in for their share of rejection too. “Stop trying to cheer me up!” “Don’t ask me so many questions!” “Why would I want to do that?” Where boredom rules, it’s easier to find more to dislike about life than there is to like.
For a while, the early adolescent is riding on empty, and that sense of emptiness is what boredom at this age betrays. “There’s nothing to do!” “I don’t know what to do with myself!” “I hate what I have to do!” And now a lot of mixed messages are sent to parents. “Leave me alone!”/ “You never include me!” “I can do it!”/ “You never help me!” “I want you to decide!”/ ‘I don’t want to do that!” So which way does the early adolescent want it? The confused and confusing answer is both ways, and often at the same time.
At this bored age, it can be really difficult to instructionally engage a classroom of early adolescents, as teachers in middle school will attest. Having detached from traditional interests of childhood, feeling increasingly at loose ends and distracted on that account, students this time of life be a tough to teach. Since challenge can be one antidote to boredom, those teachers who aggressively challenge these resistant young people to learn tend to get the highest marks from their students, at least from what I have heard. “I like my science teacher because she won’t let up and keeps pushing us to do our best.”
Fortunately, the filling up and filling out of new personal interests does occur with growth, and thus while many 6th graders are suffering from a significant loss of focus, self-definition, and worth, by 8th grade most of these young people, through exposure to older experience, are feeling increased confidence and esteem. Perhaps in relief at recovering from boredom that loss of childhood has cost, they can even act downright arrogant with self-importance from knowing what really matters now.
Possible problems boredom can cause.
Added to the difficulty of tolerating boredom is managing the surge of energy that accompanies the entry into adolescence -- the potential for doing and action that is increased and released for growth. To have no good feeling sense of where to invest one's energy creates a measure of restlessness and frustration, and a heightened susceptibility to impulse. "I can't stand doing nothing and not knowing what to do, that's why I did it!"
It is important for parents to monitor the level of boredom that their adolescent is experiencing. Is it passing (a week or less) or protracted (ongoing)? If it appears protracted, parents should pay attention because adolescents can find themselves in a very hard emotional place where the options for coping can carry increased risks of harm.
Protracted boredom can cause the young person to proceed down either of two potentially damaging paths. There is the Active path where the teenager is desperately determined to do anything to relieve boredom, and there is the passive path where the teenager is hopelessly resigned that there is nothing to be done to relieve boredom.
Feeling bored, the teenager can seek an Active Path though impulse, excitement, or escape to cope with the pain. Usually in the company of like-minded friends, there can be destructive acts of risk taking: “I’ll do whatever!” At worst, boredom can be the devils’ playground. Or following a Passive Path, the teenager can give in to apathy, withdrawal, and despondency to cope with pain. Usually solitary, there can be self-defeating isolation and loss of hope: “I just don’t care!” At worst, boredom can surrender to despair. Along either path, and in either mood set, there can be a heightened risk of substance use to medicate the unhappy experience.
Usually, passing boredom doesn’t lead to these outcomes; but I believe in extreme cases of protracted boredom it can.
Enhancing the opportunities of boredom.
As loss of childhood definition causes boredom from emptiness, it also opens up possibilities. The other side of loss is often freedom – freedom from old constraints and freedom for new opportunities. Here is where parents can help an early adolescent who gets mired in boredom.
Ironically, they can do what is likely to engender the young person’s complaints. They can take unappreciated actions on the young person’s behalf keeping in mind that once the teenager has had his complaining say, he is likely to do what they say, and even end up enjoying what he said he never would. Just because he lacks power of initiative to get him unstuck from boredom doesn’t mean he won’t piggy back on what parents push, while blaming them “for what you’re making me do!”
So consider four possible helpful parental roles.
Parent as Door Opener: Knowing their son or daughter, they can scout out activities or interests they believe might fit. “I’m not asking you to make some lengthy commitment to this, only to give it a try.”
Parent as Activity Director: Being a source of demand for service and assistance, parents can request all manner of household project and community service help. “I know this doesn’t interest you but it interests me, and it will provide something to keep you busy.”
Parent as Social Substitute: Offering recreational activity, parents offer themselves as social company. “I know being with us is not the same as being with friends, but we’ll do something with you (going out to eat, going to a movie) that you find fun to do.”
Parent as Venture Capitalist: When the adolescent has a project idea for which a little money is needed and lacking, parents can supply some small amount of start-up capital to help get it underway. “If you’ll agree to give it a six month try, we’ll pay some of the expenses to help get your idea going.”
Not all early adolescents fall away into boredom. Some young people can carry over old interests in modified forms from childhood, maybe changing sports for example. Or others may just happen on a new activity that immediately anchors new interest, like taking up music making, for example.
But for most young people, I believe a degree of developmental boredom simply comes with the territory of early adolescence. So, should a young person get stuck in a protracted spell of feeling empty of interest or entrapped in disinterest, a parental hand may help them find and make their way.
Next week’s entry: How Boredom can Afflict the End of Adolescence