Different ages need different answers
School’s out! Yay! Now what?
Kids and parents who once looked forward to the summer break may suddenly find themselves dealing with the aggravation of a familiar complaint: “I’m bored!”
But boredom can also be an opportunity, according to Linda Caldwell, professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State.
“Boredom should be motivational,” she says. “It’s a sign that you need to change what you are doing and do something else.”
In fact, learning to beat boredom is a crucial life skill. Kids who are always bored in their leisure time, says Caldwell, are in danger of developing “long-term boredom, where nothing is ever interesting.” That long-term boredom has been linked to substance abuse, school drop out, and vandalism. And boredom doesn’t just come from having too few activities, Caldwell says. “It could be a sign you have too many.”
The good news? When kids connect with activities that mean something to them, their health and sense of identity both improve.
So how can parents help kids beat summer boredom?
When kids are in elementary school, Caldwell says, they need “a lot of support finding things they are interested in.” It’s important for parents to expose kids to different activities, and encourage them to try new things. Parents can help kids discover what they like – and what they don’t – by starting conversations about how kids enjoyed new experiences, what else they might like to try, and what they’d like to do again.
In middle school, Caldwell says, kids’ brains are primed for sensation seeking. With too much time on their hands, that can lead to a bent for dangerous thrills. But their neurological desire for novelty at this age also means they’re primed to develop lifelong passions, for everything from technology to arts. “Because of the pruning that takes place in the brain,” Caldwell says, “youth can actually sculpt their abilities to control impulses and hone their skills.” Parents can encourage middle school kids by checking in with them about what activities they get the most out of – and encouraging them to stick with them, even – or especially – if they’re challenging.
Even more than support in their activities, high school kids need freedom, according to Caldwell. Leisure is a time to feel “self-determined,” Caldwell says, “that they are making decisions and in control of the situation.” It’s an important time for kids to “experiment with who they are as a person: am I a soccer player? A photographer? An artist?” But if kids are too over-scheduled, Caldwell says, they “often are even more bored.” So unscheduled time is crucial. “We have an activity bias,” Caldwell says. “But creativity can happen in these quiet moments if you don’t panic because you are bored.” Parents can help busy high school students by letting them know it’s important to rest – and by starting conversations with them about the activities that matter most to them, and how those activities shape their ideas about who they might become.