COVID-19 boredom boom brings new parenting challenges

Bored girl looking through window blinds.
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

PULLMAN, Wash. – Boredom was already a growing problem for adolescents before the outbreak of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), but the crisis is causing a boom in boredom for kids and adults alike as many states issue shelter-in-place orders to curb new cases of the virus.

Before parents step in to help, Elizabeth Weybright, a Washington State University assistant professor, said it’s important to consider a child’s individual personality and needs as every kid is different, but their age is good indicator of how much to interfere.

“From a development perspective, younger kids are likely to need more structure than older kids,” she said. “When you try to impose too much structure on teenagers, you may experience some resistance.”

Weybright’s research focuses on leisure and boredom, especially as it relates to adolescents and risk behaviors. She has studied rising rates of adolescent boredom and is currently tracking the dramatic increase in COVID-19-related boredom complaints on Twitter.

Closeup of Elizabeth Weybright
Elizabeth Weybright

For younger kids, Weybright suggests parents work together with them on making a list of things they can do as well as helping them locate any supplies they might need. Then, when they are bored, parents can refer them back to that list and resources. This doesn’t mean, however, that parents need to schedule the child’s entire day.

“It’s good to provide a type of scaffolding but also give them some free time to work through the process of dealing with being bored and finding something to do,” she said. “This helps them build those skills, so that eventually, they can do this for themselves.”

For adolescents, it may be better for parents to give them the responsibility of coming up with a list of activities on their own. Unfortunately, however, the thing teens like to do the most – socialize with their friends –  is greatly curtailed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“You may have to be flexible with screen time to give teens the opportunity to engage with their peers,” Weybright said. “Peers are really important in adolescence, and they are potentially a nice source of support in managing the stress of the current situation.”

Teenagers have a strong need for their own space, and parents should be respectful of their privacy as much as possible during stay-at-home orders. Parents should also be prepared for even more intense emotions and conflict from their adolescents.

“There’s greater opportunity for interaction when you’re all kind of hanging out in the house,” she said. “Life is more likely to become boring because you’re in the same space, with the same people, with the same stuff.”

Many kids have also lost out on spring trips, performances, sports and other events. For adolescents, this may hit particularly hard because some of those events were milestones like prom and graduation. It is important to acknowledge their sadness, Weybright said, and give them the time to grieve.

Weybright suggested encouraging teens to make boredom more meaningful by using their creativity to express their emotions and fears over COVID-19 by making videos, songs or artwork.

She also recommended involving children in making family decisions.

“You might give more difficult or nuanced decisions to teenagers than you would to younger kids, but it is still good to have them be a part of that decision-making process rather than just making the decisions for them,” she said. “This is a situation where we don’t have a lot of control in a lot of ways, so engaging them as much as possible can help.”

Weybright added that children will pick up on whatever their parents are projecting, so it is important to be honest about their own concerns over COVID-19 and give children an appropriate amount of information about the virus and the need for social distancing.

“The situation we are in is unprecedented,” Weybright said. “None of us were given any skills in dealing with a pandemic as individuals or as parents. We’re all struggling and acknowledging that is important.”

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