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Teenage Boredom in the Pandemic

How you can help your teen cope with the doldrums.

Claims of teen boredom abound—now more than ever because of COVID-19 public health restrictions. And in the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people have even been blamed for breaking the rules of social distancing more than any other group, with only anecdotal evidence to back it up.

So, what is the reality? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

If we turn first to teenage boredom, there are some important starting points. First, we know that boredom rises in the early- to mid-teen years before starting to drop in the later teens. Although boredom never really goes away for adults, there is some evidence that it is more prevalent for teens, with one study claiming that adolescents report being bored up to one-third of the time! Another study suggests that for 1 in 5 of those teens, their reported boredom levels are high. That is, it’s not just that teens get bored, but when they do, they feel it intensely (perhaps as they feel all emotions as hyper-intense).

And boredom for teens has been getting worse. This is hard to measure, but Elizabeth Weybright and her colleagues recently showed that from 2008 to 2017, reported levels of boredom have been on the rise among high school-age children. Peaking in the 10th grade, boredom was shown as becoming more prominent over the past several years and was associated with other indicators of poor mental health. So, pandemic or not, teen boredom is an important public health issue for our kids.

And boredom in teens is rarely associated with much good. Increased risk-taking behaviors, including risky sexual behavior, school absences, and acting out, are all commonly associated with the boredom-prone teen. The latter includes such undesirable behaviors as theft, property damage, and increased aggression, exacerbated in teens weighed down by the twin burdens of high boredom-proneness and high sensation-seeking.

It would be hard to imagine that the pandemic, with its constraints on our normal activities, has had any positive influence on these relations between boredom and maladaptive responding in teens. One study on individuals with ADHD showed that for youth and young adults (ages ranging from 13 to 22), there was a rise in self-reported boredom during the early stages of the pandemic. What behaviors this prompted was less clear.

So, the $64,000 question remains: What can we do to help our teens cope with pandemic boredom? Unfortunately, the intervention studies have not been done. One recent study by Joachim Waterschoot and colleagues focused on coping strategies employed by adults during the pandemic. They found that practicing mindfulness and avoiding rumination were key to minimizing boredom. There are resources, the Breathr app, for instance, designed specifically to help teens cope with stress. Well worth investigating, but for the boredom prone who already struggle to focus their attention, mindfulness meditation will be a big mountain to climb.

A key point made by the Waterschoot study was that the lack of any strategy to cope with boredom was a recipe for disaster. Those who had no self-motivating plan of action were more bored and reported less life satisfaction. Again, this study was in adults. But one thing we know about teens is that their capacity for planning ahead is not yet fully developed.

Perhaps here we can be of help. Simply telling someone what to do when they’re bored is unlikely to work. But helping them plan ahead before they experience boredom could be useful.

Just telling teens (or any boredom-prone person) what to do when they’re bored ignores one of boredom’s key messages—that we are currently not exercising our own agency very effectively. We want to be engaged with the world in a purposeful, meaningful way, but when we’re bored, it is plainly obvious that we're failing to satisfy that need for agency.

For teens, there are likely two important challenges: First, recognizing that boredom signals a need for agency, not merely entertainment. Second, when adults control their world too tightly, teens will likely see no room for their own agency. Clearly, this is a vicious cycle.

Instead, we need to find ways that teens can feel they are in control of what they do. We suggest three important approaches:

1. Don’t hover.

The quintessential helicopter parent is one that will leave no room for the teen to stretch their wings and find their own outlets for action. This is, of course, tricky as we need to also ensure a safe environment for those wings to unfurl. But if we exert too much control, we are highly unlikely to help them resolve their own boredom.

2. Do coach them to develop a greater sense of emotional awareness.

We know in adults that the boredom prone struggle to recognize and label the emotion accurately. Although not yet studied in teens, there’s no reason not to suspect that they, too, may struggle to recognize and label their own restless feelings of boredom. Certainly, in other domains, research has shown that coaching teens to better recognize their own affective states leads to positive mental health outcomes.

3. Do encourage reframing.

We know that in the context of academic boredom, students who can reframe their tasks as cognitive challenges tend to experience less boredom. Even just reflecting on what our desires are—asking the tough question of “Why am I doing this right now?”—can help bring into focus the value of what we’re doing.

Maybe there are times that the answer is simply to fill the time. But maybe we can encourage our teens to reframe what they’re doing as a stepping stone towards some other aspiration that they really want to see come true. Either way, such reflection can help the ruminating feelings of boredom dissipate.

4. Do plan ahead.

Work with your teen to make a boredom plan—a list of positive outlets they can turn to (e.g., specific physical activities or creative pursuits) when boredom descends upon them. It will be best if they buy into the development of this list—the ideas for outlets have to be theirs if they are to work to re-establish agency.

It feels like we are very close to all being released from the grip of the pandemic. But even when that new normal is realized, teenage boredom will still be with us and will be just as problematic as it’s always been.

We could use the challenges posed by the pandemic to learn to help our teens deal more proactively with their boredom. Not by telling them what to do when they’re bored or telling them to simply snap out of it. But by helping them develop the tools necessary to deal well with boredom when it comes. To better recognize the feeling, to find clever ways to reframe the meaning in what they do, and to plan ahead for optimal responses.

More from James Danckert Ph.D., and John Eastwood, Ph.D.
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