One way to think about adolescent boredom is a lack or loss of interest in what there is to do that creates enough dissatisfaction and emotional discomfort for a young person to want to seek relief.
Restless to do so, she or he may find constructive ways of redirecting or fulfilling themselves. In this case, boredom becomes an opening and opportunity for developing resourcefuness and creating growth.
However, when they cannot constructively harness it, ongoing boredom can sometimes become a staging area for damaging, even dangerous, decision-making.
It can be damaging when the student tunes out the teacher, or acts out in class, or skips out attending, or drops out of school. In all cases, the student misses out on what she or he needs to learn.
It can be dangerous when a young person resorts to mind and mood altering substances to block out or escape boredom’s emotional cost.
This is why parents need to keep a watchful eye out for teenage boredom to determine whether it is brief and passing or whether it is lasting and protracted, and how it is being managed. The more protracted it becomes, the more acute the discomfort can grow, and the more desperate the measures that may be chosen to end it. What discomfort?
Common self-descriptors such as “bored silly,” “bored stiff,” “bored out of my mind,” “bored to tears,” “bored to death” testify to how painful boredom can feel. The lack of meaning, purpose, direction, diversion, interest, or fulfillment can feel unbearable when there is no let up or relief. The adolescent complaint is very real and can run very deep: “There’s nothing worth doing!”
Now desperate measures can be chosen to cope with a desperately feeling time. To illustrate some risky choices it can motivate, consider different causes of boredom through four adolescent stages.
A common cause for boredom at this age is from the young person detaching from childhood, letting go and giving up many beloved interests, activities, and objects of value because now one is supposed to be too grown up for such childish things.
Enter Boredom from Emptiness. Now the adolescent can feel restless, at loose ends from not knowing what to do with himself, lacking something meaningful or purposeful or satisfying to fill him up.
The risk of boredom from Emptiness at this age can be Experimentation, to try something, no matter how foolish, to fill the void that boredom has created. “Doing anything feels better than doing nothing!” So he “borrows” one of his dad’s target guns for practice without asking or instruction, just for something to fill his time, without calculating the dangers.
Stage Two: Mid Adolescence (ages 13 – 15) and Forming a Family of Friends.
A common cause for boredom at this age is from the young person detaching more from parents and family, but not yet having sufficient independent social connections to make up the loss.
Enter Boredom from Loneliness. Now the adolescent has a powerful need to attach to friends, to be part of a peer group all of whom are growing and becoming different the same way she is.
The risk of boredom from Loneliness at this age can be Conforming to belong, going along with an influential friend or friends to claim “family” membership that partly compensates for what feels partly lost at home. “It’s okay if everyone else is doing it!” So she does with the group what she would never do individually and joins in a shoplifting raid at a local convenience store.
Stage Three: Late Adolescence (ages 15 – 18) and Acting more Grown Up.
A common cause for boredom at this age is from running out of what is interesting to do, repeatedly stuck in doing the same dull things when friends get together, wanting to try something else, something different, new, or more.
Enter Boredom from Monotony. Now the adolescent has a powerful need to try something more stimulating and different, maybe something forbidden, something to interrupt what feels so oppressively familiar.
The risk of boredom from Monotony at this age is Excitement for its own sake, taking risks for the thrill of it, escaping the ordinary. “If it takes daring, it’s worth doing!” So, hanging out with like-minded friends who are also tired of sharing the same old pass times, and are all itching for adventure, he participates in some act of social mischief or mayhem. And when the arresting officer asks why they did this thing, the explanation is: “We were just feeling bored!”
Stage Four: Trial Independence (ages 18 – 23) and Operating More on One’s Own.
A common cause for boredom at this age is disillusionment with independence. As the reality of living more self-reliantly sets in, the myth of finally being independent starts wearing off.
Enter boredom from Entrapment. Now there is a powerful sense of being caught by relentless basic life support demands that will not go away. Whoever thought the glamorous freedom of independence required so much boring effort?
The risk of boredom from Entrapment at this age is Escape (today, most often resorting to the online kind.) Where the entering adolescent’s battle cry was “You can’t make me!” the final stage adolescent has a different call: “I can’t make me!” The last stage adolescent fights demands of responsibility with delay. “If it can be avoided, I’ll put it off as long as possible.” So, as procrastination provides momentary escape into electronic entertainment, for example, lateness on multiple fronts becomes a habit. If the young person is in college, papers are turned in at the last minute or excuses are created for extension’s sake. If at an entry level job, persistent lateness getting to work soon ends that employment: “Fired again!”
Constructive antidotes to protracted adolescent boredom offer no easy solutions because all take effort and can feel counter-intuitive at the time.
An antidote to Emptiness might be Creation: "How can I fill myself up anew?"
An antidote to Loneliness might be Connection: "How can I reach out for companionship?"
An antidote to Monotony might be Variation: "How can I alter my routine?"
An antidote to Entrapment might be Engagement: "How can I take an interest?"
During adolescence, boredom has a lot of problems to answer for. Consider formal education.
Particularly in middle school and high school, adolescent boredom can cause students to become inattentive and uncooperative, or even absent without leave. “Why did you skip school today?” asks the parent. “Because I can’t stand being bored!” is the reply.
How is a school supposed to engage students who either feel educational boredom from emptiness of interest, entrapment in disinterest, or both? You have to admire secondary school teachers who daily step up to meet this daunting challenge. How does one arouse instructional involvement in a deeply disengaged student?
Although a lot of students have the interest or self-discipline (where interest is lacking) to engage in academics directly taught, many do not. From my bias as a graphic artist, I believe that one powerful antidote to boredom in many of these disaffected students is integrating academics with the arts. Now the opportunity for self-expression within an instructional context can invite personal investment in what is being taught. Now self-interest can make interest in the subject matter easier to take.
I could write an interesting book about adolescent boredom. Perhaps one day I will.
Next week’s entry: Negotiating Incompatible Differences with Your Adolescent