Duke TIP

Bored to Tears? We Should Listen!

August 6, 2006

A child came home from school one day and said, “I’m bored.”
“What’s the matter? What do you mean?” his parents implored

What does this child mean when he says that he is bored? Is he bored at school? Is he at a loss for what to do once he gets home? Why do his parents respond with emotions ranging from impatience to anxiety?

Children quickly learn that saying they are bored grabs adults’ attention.

No one likes to feel bored, and children quickly learn that saying they are bored grabs the attention of the adults in their lives. So, how do you know if you are responding with appropriate concern, or if you are being dismissive or defensive?

The Nine Factors of Boredom

A review of psychological research indicates that nine factors contribute to boredom. Several of them relate directly to the characteristics of gifted individuals.

  1. Age. Feelings of boredom peak in adolescence, when individuals are waiting to engage in meaningful, productive work.
  2. Gender. Although members of both genders may experience boredom similarly, researchers believe that girls are more likely to identify this feeling as depression, while boys are more likely to say that they are bored.
  3. Perceptions of time. For those experiencing boredom, the time seems to drag. This may lead to the feeling that the entire day was boring, when in “real time” the episode of boredom may have lasted only minutes. Gifted children usually complete work in less time than others, leaving them with extra time to fill. Or they may become so involved in a project that they get frustrated when asked to move on and work on another task. Either situation can lead to boredom. Also, gifted children often have so many interests that their time is overscheduled. They are unaccustomed to downtime and may be at a loss for ways to use it. Parents may need to help them generate ideas for coping with free time. Suggesting unwelcome chores will not ease their boredom. Alternatives should address a child’s interests, mental involvement, or physical outlets for energy.
  4. Basic needs. Adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and a sense of security must be provided. Even family disagreements interfere with feelings of security.
  5. Physical movement. In school, physical activity is frequently limited. This inner need cannot be ignored and will be expressed somehow, whether in permissible or in unacceptable ways. Gifted individuals often seem to have boundless energy and may have difficulty containing their need for action.
  6. Barriers to freedom. In the classroom, some freedoms have to be limited. How a child views these limits, however, can be key to his or her feelings of dissatisfaction expressed as boredom. Gifted individuals, who tend to be self-sufficient and independent, often resent outside controls.
  7. Lack of choice and control over activities. Gifted students may be required to do the same activity for the same amount of time as every other student. Because of their high degree of motivation, they often lose interest when they cannot choose their activities themselves.
  8. Mental stimulation. Many gifted students require high levels of stimulation and race to take on new challenges. Their rapid rates of acquisition and retention cause them to be impatient with repetition and intolerant of routine tasks.
  9. Coping skills. Some students have not developed the ability to cope with feelings of boredom adequately and appropriately. The good news is that coping skills can be learned, planned, modeled, and taught.

Clarify the Problem

The boredom problem is best approached by using critical thinking to analyze the problem and creative thinking to generate solutions. Such an approach includes getting a clear picture of the problem, creating a plan, implementing it, and assessing its effectiveness.

The following questions can help you and your child clarify boredom episodes:

  • Do you understand the instructions and what you are supposed to do?
  • Are you afraid of what will happen if you do not complete the assignment correctly? What if your teacher/parent/friend does not like what you have done?
  • Have you lost your interest in finishing this activity? Why?
  • Have you done this activity for too long, or the same type of activity too many times?
  • Do you feel locked into a certain approach and blocked from trying new ones?
  • Do you feel that if you had a certain object, friendship, or ability, everything would be different?

These questions uncover the reasons behind boredom. Any situation that causes inaction and stalls involvement leads to boredom. Once the cause is identified, specific positive action can be implemented to prevent boredom in the future. A written log also may help identify the amount of time, period of the day, type of activities, or topics that trigger boredom.

Established patterns indicate what issues need to be addressed and predict when boredom may happen again.


Make a Plan

After a problem area has been identified, it can be approached from two angles: you can search for ways to change the situation, or you can change the child's perception of it. Often curriculum requirements and chores cannot be changed or eliminated. So a change in attitude is needed. Tasks can be made more interesting in the following ways:

  • Chunk large tasks into small steps and give yourself small rewards for completing them, such as working for three minutes or doing five problems, then taking a short break.
  • Play "Beat the Clock." See how fast you can complete the chore accurately and neatly.
  • Try to do two things at once. Can you do the work and talk on the phone or listen to the radio at the same time?
  • Try applying creative techniques such as force-fitting (putting together two items not normally associated with each other to solve a problem or create a new product) or writing personal analogies, musical parodies, or poetry about the topic.
  • Keep a ball in your pocket to squeeze, kick an exercise band tied between rungs of a chair, or take an exercise break to satisfy the need for physical movement.
  • Take a “time warp” trip. Imagine what this task would be like 50 years in the future or would have been like 50 years in the past.
  • Establish a “things to do when I am bored” area and keep it stocked with enticing ideas and activities.

A Word of Caution

Psychological research mentions the forced effort model as a response to boredom, whereby students who wish to do well or to please others force themselves to continue an activity that bores them. This drains their mental energy reserves, and these children may exhibit characteristics similar to those of depression. The differences between depression and boredom are summarized in the sidebar. The quality, intensity, frequency, and duration of the feelings are important. This list is not to be used as a diagnostic tool and is only a summary of research findings. If you suspect that your child is reaching the point of being “bored to tears,” consult a doctor or counselor.

Although the environment may not be changeable, children have powerful tools at their disposal for combating boredom: their own attitudes and creativity. These tools can give them control over the impact boredom has on their lives and can provide focus for their energy. Rather than blame outside situations for their boredom, they can search within themselves for entertaining answers to the problem. Indeed, research indicates that boredom can be a stimulus for creativity, invention, and productivity.

Boredom Depression
Blames other people or things

Blames self

Has an empty feeling

Has a heavy feeling or hopelessness

Experiences a lack of interest

Experiences sadness or a sense of personal loss

Has a limited attention span

Has intense feelings

Contributing events are infrequent

Contributing events are persistent

Rate of incidence higher in males

Rate of incidence higher in females

Seeks stimulation

Avoids stimulation

—Linda Deal

Linda Deal is an educator and author of The Boredom Solution (Dandy Lion, 2003). She presents on science education, gifted education, and boredom and its education implications.