7 Best Ways to Respond When Kids Say They're Bored

What to do--and what not to do--when your child says he has nothing to do

what to do when kids say they are bored
Guide--but don't step in--when kids are bored. dm909/Getty Images

At one time or another, most parents have heard their child complain--most likely in a whiny, plaintive voice--that he's bored. It's perfectly normal for kids to get bored from time to time. Not only that, many parents may not recognize that a kids' boredom may actually be a good thing. Unstructured time gives kids an important opportunity to figure out what interests them and how to solve the problem of what to do to occupy themselves.

That said, just telling a child to "go do something" or making him feel bad for feeling bored is not only unhelpful, but doesn't give a child the tools to figure it out himself. Steer clear of phrases like "bored people are boring"--that implies that your child is doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them.

Parents should also try to figure out what other reasons could be at the root of a child saying he's bored. He could be upset about something, such as a good friend who went away on vacation, or he may just want your time and attention. He may also be anxious about something, such as homework that's too difficult for him, and say that he's bored because he doesn't want to admit that something may not be going well. And like many kids today, your child may want you to let him watch TV or play a video game. Whatever the situation may be, "I'm bored" may sometimes be a child's way of asking for help.

So what can parents do to help kids figure out a solution for themselves, and to figure out what may really be going on? Generally speaking, younger grade-school age kids may need a bit more guidance than older kids. But it's important not to step in and hand them activities, even with younger children.

Some great responses to kids' complaints about boredom are:

1. Ask her what she would do if she could do anything. Then encourage her to use paper and crayons or colored pencils (or whatever art supplies she wants) to show you what that would look like, or to write a story about it. For very young children, you can prompt her with questions like, "Would you have magical powers?" or "Would you be in far-away land?" or some such.

2. Do something side-by-side, then branch off. If your child is starting to read, begin by reading a bit with her and then let her do it herself while you do your own work or read your own book. This way, you are showing her that she can entertain herself while you meet your own needs, but that you are there for her if she wants to talk about anything.

3. Let them pick what they like. Don't just tell a child to "go read a book." Spark their interest with a book you pick out together at a bookstore. Instead of telling a kid to "just go play," talk about what you loved doing as a kid and see if any of those ideas will spark his imagination.

4. Shake it off--literally. Go outside and kick around a soccer ball, ride your bikes, toss a Frisbee, or do something else active that you all enjoy as a family. Getting active and being out in the fresh air will shake of your child's doldrums and give you a chance to ask her what, if anything, might be bothering her.

5. Challenge him to find his own activity. Whether in his room or in another room of the house, provide your child with a range of activities and materials he can use to make or do something. Some things kids can create with or entertain themselves with: a big bag of Legos, a box of crafts supplies, a stack of books, some paper and colored pencils or crayons, musical instruments, or any other kid-safe materials that interest him.

6. Say no to the screen. Sure, parking your child in front of the TV or letting him play a video game will certainly quiet complaints about boredom. But kids need to learn how to entertain themselves without electronic stimulation, and the worst solution to boredom is the thing that's making kids less able to use their imaginations these days--screens. (For more about how and why to reduce screen time, read, "Kids and Technology: When to Limit It and How" and "Cutting Down Kids' Screen Time Means Better Health, Grades for Kids.")

7. Ask your child to put on a show or share a story with you later. Kids love to come up with stories and invent characters and play pretend--that's the beautiful thing about childhood. Encourage your child to use whatever she can think of--finger puppets, stuffed animals, Playmobile people--to be creative and tell you a story or put on a show at the end of the day. She may even want to include her friends or a sibling and do a play with real people. Having a "performance" deadline may encourage your child to try to come up with a story to share with family and friends. (If she's shy, she can always ask you to read the story for her when she's finished.)

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