Many parents have heard plenty of boredom-based lamentations from their kids, even before the age of coronavirus. But COVID-19 and the resulting quarantines have brought boredom into our lives on a whole new level. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the child is four or fourteen, being trapped at home and without regular interaction with peers leads to fairly dramatic childhood ennui.

In comparison to the devastating losses we are experiencing in the world right now, boredom is not a terribly urgent issue. But it can bring distress to children and their families. Understanding the roots of boredom can offer parents strategies for successfully navigating the doldrums.

What is boredom?

While there are multiple definitions of boredom, Westgate and Wilson provide a useful model. Boredom has two key tenets: attention and meaning deficits. Attention deficits are our brains yearning to bring our cognitive horsepower onto a task and having nowhere to put it. The human brain has impressive cognitive resources and looks for novel problems to apply them to. A meaning deficit refers to selected goals for our minds not lining up with our values. Our brains are wired to be goal-seeking, and to trigger reward circuitry when goals are achieved. If we aren’t fulfilled by the neurological reward, then there’s a mismatch and a lack of meaning.

Is boredom good or bad?

Many clinicians have noted associations with boredom and problematic behavior. For example, boredom associates with risk-taking and stimulating behavior, including substance abuse. Clinically-minded parents sometimes get nervous that bored children might undertake risky behaviors, and fear their children’s boredom. However, child development tells a slightly different story, where boredom is neither good nor bad. Rather, boredom triggers a seeking state, where the brain searches for new experiences. Those new experiences can take on a vast range of qualities. Creativity and inventiveness are among the highest quality activities that may derive from boredom. Thrill and pleasure-seeking are among the riskiest. On one extreme, we have the story of Albert Einstein, the bored Swiss patent clerk imagining himself riding a bicycle next to a beam of light. On the other, drug use, crime, and other activities that can lead to tragic outcomes.

So what does “I’m bored” really mean?

The hidden meaning of I’m bored is “I don’t know how to be bored,” or “I am having difficulty tolerating boredom.” Boredom is an understandable condition for a child who is used to waking up, going to school, participating in an after-school activity, interacting with family, and stimulating technology, and going to bed.

Most children were in a place where routine defined their days. They had very little time or space to be bored. In our newly quarantined world, it’s fairly easy to imagine both attentional deficits (these kids have no place to focus their cognitive energy) and meaning deficits (whatever is going on in the classroom zoom, the work isn’t nearly as tailored to them as it used to be).

It would be nice to imagine that an army of Einsteins awaits us in a decade’s time, though that’s probably wishful thinking. It takes real effort to learn how to be bored, and we can’t undo the built-up years of our children developing comfort in their routines over even three months of confinement. We don’t have great models for how kids learn how to be productively bored, so we are stuck making things up.

With that in mind, I personally have gone back to the questions of what makes my own kids feel powerful, and steering their boredom towards those ideas. They’ve floated toward ideas of creation, sometimes taxing our own abilities to be supportive. We try not to have unrealistic expectations. We know that it will take a lot of adjusting before any comfort is a normal activity, and try to keep finding patience in the name of boredom.