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Understanding and Managing Summertime Boredom

The summer holidays are fast-approaching and while you may be looking forward to some slower days and a break from the daily routine of homework and extra-curriculars, it's inevitable that there will be times when your children aren't sure what to do with their free time ... and the words "I'm bored" might be uttered. Our latest blog offers up some insights into boredom and suggests some well-tested ways for parents to help their children manage their boredom in a healthy way.

Everyone experiences boredom from time to time. Maybe we’re standing in a queue at the post office, or sitting on the Tube heading to work, or waiting for a bus, and we do what we’ve been doing since the advent of smart phones …. we start scrolling through emails, text messages, online news, social media, or maybe we play games. Over the summer, there will be times when your children are in similar situations: waiting in airports, long car rides, cancelled playdates, rainy days …. We’ve been there, and we've learned a thing or two to help them move on from being bored. It helps, though, to understand a bit about what boredom is and have some healthy ways to manage those moments when they’re not sure to do with their free time.

What is boredom?

Ann recently attended a webinar in which one of the speakers, James Danckert, PhD, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, talked about boredom as being a motivation state — a state in which you want to be doing something meaningful, but you’re not, and you’re feeling antsy, restless and irritable as a result. Boredom is an emotion, meaning it is rooted in the limbic part of the brain. Children are born with a fully functioning limbic system, and those brakes of impulse control and self-regulation, which are rooted in the pre-frontal cortex, are developing as they grow. As the graph shows, there is a pretty large gap between the two brain regions before they finally level off in the early 20s.

Busting Summertime Boredom

As a result, a child’s ability to manage their emotions and make good choices is not always so easy, which explains why they sometimes take risks and make mistakes. Caley Arzamarski, another speaker in the webinar, reiterated what we say to parents: that while the prefrontal region is catching up, we are more effective when we act as our child's frontal lobe. This way, we help them to learn to deal with their emotions and find solutions.

So ... how can I help my child manage their boredom?

Being able to identify and understand the feelings provides a catalyst for action. But what will that action be? Boredom in and of itself isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s the choices we make out of the boredom that can be healthy — or not. So, when we’re bored, as adults, we can think to ourselves “I’m bored” and decide to call a friend, or read a book, or go for a walk. We can say to ourselves, “OK, I’m bored. What would be interesting/meaningful for me in this moment?”

Our children, though, don’t yet have that level of awareness and self-inquiry. Over the summer holidays, you may hear them say that they’re bored, and you might think, well do something, go find one of those zillion toys you have and find something to play with. But they don’t. Instead, they look to you to help them figure out what to do. Yes, it can feel annoying, but when we understand what underlies their request, it makes so much more sense … and puts you in the position to help them help themselves manage their boredom in a more meaningful way.

Busting that boredom!

Name it to tame it

If we consider that boredom is an emotional response to a need to be doing something meaningful, we are more effective as parents when we help our children understand and (over time) learn to tolerate and manage the emotion. We become pretty good at identifying our child’s irritability, antsy-ness and restlessness. Let’s use those signals as the starting point.

You’re starting to squirm. Looks to me like you might be feeling a bit bored and want to be doing something, but you’re not quite sure what to do. Can you think of something you'd like to do, or would you like to choose something something from the BORED board?

With an older child, you might say: You seem a bit restless today. I wonder if It feels strange to have so much free time now that exams are finished. You’re probably wondering what else you can do. Would you like some help brainstorming … or do you already have some ideas?”

Set up for Success

If you anticipate being in a situation this summer where things aren’t likely to go smoothly (the longer than planned car journey, the delayed flight, the family hike …) sit with your children beforehand and come up with some ideas for things to do. Here are a few non-screen ideas from previous clients:

  • Post-it notes and pencils, coloring books, puzzle games
  • The travel-size box of Table Topics conversation cards for when they're not sure what to talk about
  • Playlists of music for everyone to listen —and maybe sing-along to
  • Favourite audiobooks or podcasts
  • Books of jokes
  • The City Game (one person says a city, e.g. LONDON, and the next person has to say a city that starts with an N, so NAIROBI … INNSBROOK … KUALA LUMPUR …)

For more ideas check out our list of boredom busters.

And HERE are some more ideas for moving away from screens this summer.

Create a summer calendar

Another great way to set up for success is to have each child provide a list of all the things they’d like to do over the holidays. You can chat with them about which items are do-able, and when you’ve got the full list, plot the items onto a family calendar. We used to keep one on the back of the door. It was just a piece of poster board with a roughly drawn calendar on it. Our kids would look at it each morning to see what was happening each day, and see where they might have some free time and start thinking ahead about what to do with it. Click HERE for our template.

Let them choose for themselves

For those of you with more than one child, you may notice that the sibling issues arise more quickly when one (or more) of them feel bored. Another way to be on the front foot is to have practical, reasonable alternatives available, so they know there are things that they can be doing.

With younger children, Pinterest is full of inspiration for boredom busters: jam jars full of lollipop sticks, each with a different activity written on it, and so much more. We created a BORED board to help our kids choose their own activities. We had a white board with the letters B.O.R.E.D down the left side, and activities beginning with each letter there as suggestions:

B: Bake, Breathe, Book
O: Outside, Organize, Obstacle Course
R: Read, Race, Rest,
E: Exercise, Egg & Spoon race, Look at maps of the Earth
D: Draw, Dance, Design

And, of course, you don’t need to be limited by those 5 letters!

Get Outside

Children love a mission! Geocaching is such a great way to engage them when out for a walk, and really great when exploring new places. Caches are hidden all around the world and act as a sort of treasure hunt. Make sure to set up an account so you track your finds. There is an app, but you can also print off instructions ahead of time. This really is fun for all ages, and will likely take you to places (even locally) that you've never been to.

Show your kids

What do you do when you’re bored? Do you complain, and pull out your phone and start scrolling through social media? Or, do you say, I’m feeling antsy, like I want to be doing something interesting … I’m going to grab my book/call a friend/go for a walk. When you’re standing in the queue at the post office, chat with the others in the queue, play a game I-Spy with your child … and show them that there are other ways of filling time.

It's also a great time to set some new goals. We've created a handy template to get your kids thinking about what they might like to do and how to get into action.

If you, or your child are starting to feel restless, taking a 5-4-3-2-1 mindful moment is an easy way to engage the senses, and move away from feelings of boredom. You can be out on a walk or in the car, and make a game of naming 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste. It helps to rebalance the thinking and feeling brain and gets everyone ready to come up with some ideas.

We hope these tips spark some ways to help your children learn to manage their downtime in a healthy way and start to appreciate those moments of boredom. We hope even more that you get to enjoy some downtime too … and maybe see that “I’m bored” can be an opportunity to find something meaningful and fulfilling to do together.

Our job is not to make sure our child doesn't get bored. It’s to encourage them to take their free time and find meaningful ways to manage it and support them when they find it hard.

We’re here for you over the summer if you have any questions, so please drop us a line at hello@theparent.team.