Parenting Adolescents About Managing Boredom

5 min read
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.l

Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.l

Not a trivial emotion, boredom is about nothing—about the wearing discomfort from emptiness of meaning, interest, purpose, or enjoyment. Because it can feel troubling on these counts, it needs to be taken seriously.

In adolescence, complaints of boredom can sometimes seem contradictory.

  • They can arise from having too little to do, like when experience feels empty of interest: “I don’t know what to do with myself!” This is the free-time complaint.
  • They can arise from having too much to do, like when routine demands feel oppressive: “I don’t like having to keep doing this!” This is the forced-time complaint.

So, boredom commonly comes in these two unhappy forms.

  • There is empty boredom when the person can’t find an activity to enjoy like a valued pleasure or pastime: “I hate having nothing to do!” Sometimes vacation can feel boring.
  • There is tedious boredom when the person must do what feels unrewarding, like an unwanted task or routine: “I hate having to do this!” Sometimes homework can feel boring.

Pain of Boredom

While it may sound like a minor discomfort, boredom can become a painful part of adolescence. Many are the sides of this slight but serious form of suffering.

  • Boredom can make one feel at a loss, missing something affirmative to do.
  • Boredom makes one feel disconnected from meaningful company.
  • Boredom feels empty of interest or motivation.
  • Boredom feels restless and dissatisfied.
  • Boredom feels painfully unoccupied.
  • Boredom creates quiet desperation.
  • Boredom is being tired of doing nothing.
  • Boredom is being weary of sameness.
  • Boredom can feel depressing.
  • Boredom dislikes repetition.
  • Boredom is at loose ends.
  • Boredom lacks purpose.
  • Boredom feels lonely.

In any of these ways and more, boredom can be a troubling part of youthful life.

Risks From Boredom

The danger of protracted adolescent boredom is that it can be a staging area for the impulse to relieve this deep discomfort—intolerable loneliness from missing companionship or something to do. When one is feeling painfully disconnected from people or purpose, sometimes a harmful alternative can be rashly chosen—be it experimental, social, or chemical.

“Why did you agree to go along with that?” asked the parents after their teenager has gotten in trouble by following her friend to damaging effect. “Because I just needed something to do!” was the reply. Boredom motivated misguided relief.

Just as stress can arise from having too much to do, boredom can arise from having too little one wants to do or having to do what one doesn’t like doing. Hence, some parents can see boredom from idleness as “the devil’s playground” and strive for their teenager to stay occupied, involved, and busy “doing” something much of the time.

For example, keeping their more frequently bored adolescent active when she or he doesn’t know what to do with herself or himself can call forth a household helping response: “If you don’t feel like doing anything and don’t like having nothing to do, here’s something you can help me get done.”

Functions of Boredom

Boredom, however, isn’t just a tiresome feeling to endure. It can also be a functional driver of dissatisfaction that can motivate growth. “I’m tired of easy classes; I want more demanding instruction.” And now the challenge of advanced education is desired.

Double-edged, while boredom can incapacitate with aimlessness and emptiness, it can also motivate one to find fresh interest and challenge. Boredom can create readiness for change.

Minus and Plus

So, is boredom to the good or bad? The answer can be both.

On the downside, lasting boredom can be painful enough to seek damaging relief, at worst by escaping into risky going along, excessive electronic entertainment, substance use, or seeking excitement for its own sake to escape the dull pain of monotony: “Doing anything feels better than doing nothing!”

On the upside, nagging boredom can be dissatisfying enough to throw a young person back on their own resources, creating new possibilities, activities, direction, and relationships, all of which can refresh meaning in their lives. Boredom can ignite determination and curiosity: “I’m ready to try something different!”

Sometimes for parents, adolescent boredom can get complicated when, for example, their young person who has excelled in a particular sport through middle school now finds it boring and sees high school as a chance to try another athletic activity. They are caught by surprise: “You want to stop developing the skills you’ve learned and earned?” Still of interest to them, it is no longer of interest to her. At a loss, they have enjoyed watching her display of excellence. Explains their freshman daughter: “It’s become same-old, same-old; I’m ready to play something new!”

Boredom in Perspective

In adolescence, protracted boredom can be a risk factor, provoking an impulse to escape emptiness from missing meaning and purpose in one’s life. So treat it seriously. Don’t simply let it go.

And next time your adolescent complains about boredom—“There’s nothing to do!” “This is boring to do!”—consider offering perspective: “Boredom doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you or your life. It happens to everyone at times when they momentarily run out of motivation. While having nothing you want to do at the moment can feel tiresome, the dissatisfaction can also free you up to consider other possibilities. You can welcome boredom as a call to find fresh purpose or just treat it as a challenge to perform some dull activity well. Either way, chances are you will feel happier when you do. And, in general, should excitement ever feel like the only alternative to painful boredom, remember that finding an interest is usually a safer way to go.”

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