Bored to Death: Risks from Boredom in Adolescence
Adolescent boredom has its uses and abuses; parents can support the useful side
Posted Oct 21, 2013
I believe Boredom has a major role to play in adolescence, for good and ill.
For good, it can become an incentive for development as old activities lose allure and fresh interests must be found to inspire new growth. For ill, it contributes to many personal and social problems. At its psychological worst, in addition to other risks to be discussed, when it progresses from a passing to a protracted to a more permanent state of feeling helpless from not knowing what to do or hopeless that there is anything else to do, boredom can lead to despondency.
Consider this entry definition of BOREDOM: the EMPTY FEELING of having nothing one knows or wants to do and no ideas for changing this; or the TRAPPED FEELING of having to do things that are imposed, inescapable, and void of interest, mattering, or pleasure.
How can an emotional state that is often discounted as superficial in adolescence be worthy of serious consideration? So the adolescent is bored. Big deal; so what? The short answer is: because it may motivate actions that can be significantly harmful. For an extreme example, if accurately rendered, here is a recently reported incident that is serious indeed.
An Australian baseball player who came to the US for college is shot while jogging and dies in what appeared to be a thrill killing by three teenage youths (15, 16, and 17) in Duncan, Oklahoma. “Police have said the 17-year old told authorities the boys were ‘bored’ and decided to kill someone ‘for the fun of it.’” (AP, August 21, 2013.) Whether boredom was the primary motive here is uncertain since all behavior is multiply determined; but it was self-reported by one of the offenders to at least have been part of the deadly mix.
Of course, not all adolescent boredom results in social violence. However, one risk of boredom is creating a dangerous disconnection between the act of relief from boredom that can be desperately chosen, and awareness of the harmful consequences that such a choice may have on self and others. When coping with boredom, the young person can be extremely short-sighted. They can focus on an immediate impulse and ignore the attendant dangers.
Boredom is serious because it can be a painful state for an adolescent to endure. It can feel intolerable to lose interest, to feel at a loss of purpose, to lack meaning, to feel undirected and aimless, to feel disconnected and at loose ends, to feel unmotivated, to feel trapped in tedium and monotony, to feel sapped of initiative, to feel empty of caring with nothing worth doing, to feel bored stiff, bored to tears, bored out of one’s mind, bored to death.
Hard for adults, it is much harder for adolescents who have less life experience, psychological resources, and social power to draw on. This is why parents often trivialize and ignore adolescent boredom. It is no longer as much of an issue for them because they have forgotten what it was like growing up, have accepted its intermittent or common occurrence in adulthood, on the job and in life, and have strategies for suffering or resolving it. As for mental health concern, if this is any measure look in the index of the recent psychiatric DSM-5 and you will find no mention of Boredom as a symptom worthy of major diagnostic attention.
Sometimes when parents trivialize boredom, how it should be no big deal for their adolescent to feel disconnected and at loose ends, I suggest they try an experiment in boredom themselves. Just for a week, take a “vacation” from their electronic appendages—‘pull the plug’ on the cell phone, computer, gaming and music player, portable computing device, TV, VCR, DVD player—and see how painful boredom can be as they struggle with the loss to find alternative ways to divert themselves and connect with each other. They can call this “withdrawal” if they like, but boredom is what I believe it is.
Boredom is also built into adolescence in a complicated ways. For example, one great challenge of adolescence is managing more freedom of independence. Because of boredom, however, adolescents have a love/hate relationship with freedom. They love having nothing to do, but they hate having nothing to do. They don’t often like being told what to do, but they often don’t like not knowing what to do. Just as school can be boring (no free time); vacation can also be boring (too much free time.) In the first case, they don’t have enough freedom to do what they want, in the second they have so much freedom they don’t know what to do with it.
One common hallmark of the onset of early adolescence (around ages 9–13) is increased boredom. It puts parents on notice that the ten to twelve year developmental change that transforms a child into a young adult has begun. At the outset of this process, they often wonder what has happened to the child who was so full of enthusiasm all the time and such an engine of curiosity and interest to live with. Now it’s like someone pulled the plug on the young person and all that positive energy for fun and constructive activity has been drained away. One parent described this change poetically. “Developmental lumphood,” she called it, by which she meant that all her son wanted to do was lay around and complain about having nothing to do or about what he had to do.
This increasing disinterest can also be reflected at school where a 7th grade teacher typically has to contend with more student disinterest than say a 1st grade teacher who usually has more children eager to learn. Recognizing this change, the best secondary teachers I have known seem to challenge students to work hard and develop their capacities for themselves, whether they are particularly interested in the subject matter or not. Challenge can be one antidote to boredom.
Because boredom at this age can be so painful, it is natural that young people would become restless and irritable in its throws and would welcome opportunities for relief. For example, at these times, much to their dismay, parents watch their son or daughter “numbing out” by spending endless hours electronically getting away from themselves. Or they later find out about what happened when their bored adolescent, in the company of like-minded friends, all decided that to do anything together beat suffering from doing nothing alone. Apparently, one member of the group wildly suggested, “I know what we can do!” And then, in collective relief, everyone else followed unwisely along.
The risks of boredom come in two forms – from the Emotional Dismay itself and from what adolescents choose to do to seek Relief. Relief from boredom can be sought in four common and often troublesome ways: through Exclusion, Escape, Experimentation, or Excitement.
An act of Exclusion can be chosen like daydreaming, tuning out, or ignoring what is boring to heed, this choice for relief causing trouble if significant warnings or danger signs are not attended to like not texting or drinking when driving. Here the relief is disregarding what one has no interest to hear.
An act of Escape can be chosen like some form of electronic entertainment, this choice for relief causing trouble if it becomes habitual like compulsive playing of video games, online social surfing or networking, or cellular texting for example. Here relief is an act of avoidance.
An act of Experimentation can be chosen like some form of recreational substance use, this choice causing trouble if altered judgment endorses risky decision-making that results in harm to self or others, or some degree of chemical dependency develops for example. Here relief is an act of curiosity.
An act of Excitement can be chosen like extreme risk taking, this choice causing trouble if, seeking adventure to break the oppressive monotony, impulsive daring, law breaking, or social violence is sought to create a sense of thrill for example. Here relief is an act of stimulation.
In all four ways—exclusion, escape, experimentation, and excitement—relief from boredom can become a staging area for trouble when doing something, anything, feels preferable to enduring the experience of emptiness or entrapment and the emotional dis-ease boredom can cause.
Does all this mean that boredom is nothing but bad? It does not. The opportunity of boredom is in its power to create motivation. Because adolescence is a process of growth, boredom can also be very functional. It creates constant dissatisfaction with how things are and how one is. At an age when little seems to have lasting value, boredom can motivate the desire to change and make changes. “I’ve been there,” “I’m tired of doing that,” “I want to try something different.” “I’m ready to move on.”
So the fifteen-year-old, bored with just socially hanging around with friends and playing the same old sports decides to get a part time job, save some of the money, and plan for paying her share of the expense for a car in a year or so—a next goal to which new interest and dedication become attached.
For parents, adolescent boredom is worthy of their attention. If it seems to be short term and probably PASSING, it can be worthwhile to let the young person struggle to resourcefully find a new and constructive focus, and they can even provide support for the new interest that is found. If it seems to be PROTRACTED, the adolescent remaining at loose ends, parents need to monitor how it is being managed, particularly to see if activities of exclusion, escape, experimentation, or excitement are regularly chosen. At this juncture, they may want to provide other ways for the young person to get and stay busy. And if it seems to be becoming PERMANENT, the adolescent unhappily unable to get himself motivated or engaged, they might want to have the young person assessed by a counselor to see if she or he has fallen into some degree of despondency.
Reflecting on boredom in adolescence, about the pains of emptiness and of entrapment, puts me in mind of Bob Dylan’s powerful lyric: “Too much of nothing/can make a man ill at ease…Oh, when there’s too much of nothing/No one has control.” Often the poets and songwriters seem to summarize life best.
Next week’s entry: Necessary Losses of Adolescence