Understanding a Child’s Capacity to Be Bored and Alone

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“I’m bored!” What parent hasn’t heard this complaint from their child? Why do some children feel bored when they are surrounded by toys while others entertain themselves using imagination alone? How should parents respond to complaints of boredom? To answer these questions, it’s important to understand boredom as, in part, a reaction to uncomfortable emotional states.

What Does “I’m bored” Mean to a Child? 
Let’s first consider what is probably not boring to a young child: snuggles with Mommy or Daddy, family game night and an afternoon with friends at the playground. Children rarely – if ever – complain that activities involving companionship are boring. The common theme in these experiences is that children are connected and engaged in some way with others, so they do not have to be alone with their thoughts. Worries and uncomfortable feelings tend to feel less uncomfortable – or are not felt at all – in the company and with the distraction of supportive people. 

In Which Situations Do Some Children Feel Bored? 
Children might dub tasks boring if they involve taking responsibility and ownership over one’s autonomy (playing or doing schoolwork independently, cleaning up or getting ready for bed), and times when he or she has to be alone. If a child is upset or worried for other reasons and is then asked to embark on a task independently, being alone becomes a bigger challenge because the task is no longer just the task: it is the task plus the accompanying uncomfortable feelings. Children tend to feel less comfortable when they are on their own or alone with their thoughts when they are angry, sad, upset or worried. 

Boredom is a State of Mind 
Considering that boredom is about not wanting to be alone with one’s thoughts, we begin to see that a complaint about being bored is more likely a complaint about one’s feelings rather than the external components involved. Therefore, “I’m bored” can be understood as meaning, “I don’t like being alone,” or “I’m uncomfortable with how I’m feeling and nothing feels good enough, so being with you or doing something exciting that will pull me outside of myself seems to be the best solution right now.”

When boredom is understood as a reaction to feelings, we can focus on it as an internal rather than external problem. The best kind of help for an internal problem seeks explanation and deepens understanding of how emotions affect overall capacities and behaviors.

Outside Fixes Vs. Inside Help
Outside fixes are short-term changes made to the environment that temporarily cover or distract from an internal discomfort. Watching TV or playing a video game can be quite effective in the moment but do very little, if anything, to address or help the inside problem or original cause of the discomfort. These activities solve the immediate issue but do not help a child grow from the inside.

Since 4-year-old Alice’s little brother was born, she describes just about everything as boring. Before her brother’s arrival, Alice frequently played with her dolls and only occasionally checked in with her mother. Now, Alice follows her mother around as she tends to the new baby and says her dolls (and all of her mother’s suggestions) are boring. Nothing satisfies Alice unless she has her mother’s undivided attention.

Alice’s mother has two options: Address the problem on the outside (offer suggestions, distractions and encouragement to find something to do the way she used to) or invite Alice to think about what is different on the inside. By saying something such as, “Playing with your dolls doesn’t seem to feel good enough since Baby was born. I know things feel different now and being with me is helping you with that,” Alice’s mother will help her daughter understand that her boredom is a result of an internal discomfort rather than environmental problem. 

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.