Complaining about being bored from time to time is just part of being a kid. But for kids with ADHD (also known as ADD), boredom can be a frequent problem. And it can play out in ways that have negative consequences.
Here’s what you need to know about ADHD and boredom, and how you can help your child.
What Boredom Can Look Like in Kids With ADHD
Boredom isn’t a symptom of ADHD. It’s a common result of having ADHD, however. And it often drives behavior that can be misunderstood.
Here’s an example. A grade-schooler with ADHD keeps disrupting the class. The teacher thinks he’s intentionally acting up, and sends him to the principal’s office. The child tells the principal that it’s boring or even stupid to “just sit there” in class.
What that really means is: “I can’t just sit there. I need to find something that really interests me in order to keep still and stay focused.”
Most kids can stick it out until class ends or the teacher moves to a new subject. Kids with ADHD often can’t. When boredom sinks in, impulsive and negative attention-seeking behaviors follow.
Keep in mind, too, that kids with ADHD often complain about boredom even when they’re free to do what they want. Their parents hear “I’m bored!” all the time on weekends and school breaks.
These kids aren’t being lazy. And they’re not just trying to be a pain. Instead, they truly don’t know how to keep themselves from being bored.
Boredom and the ADHD Brain
Kids with ADHD are primed for excitement and newness. They may constantly seek stimulation. This isn’t just a personality trait. A growing body of research suggests that it may very well be due to the structure and chemical makeup of their brain.
Consider a typical middle-school English class that’s learning about Shakespeare. A lot of kids may find the lesson a bit dull, but they know they need to learn the material and can make the conscious decision to sit tight and listen.
Many kids with ADHD don’t have that kind of control. This may be because the parts of their brain that help them pay attention, keep focused and not become bored are “under-aroused.” They don’t fire as efficiently as those of their peers.
The brain may also not properly activate certain chemicals that make activities satisfying, so they feel less encouraged to stay focused on them. This, too, can be read as “boredom” for kids with ADHD.
There’s another important factor at play when it comes to boredom and the ADHD brain. Kids with ADHD often struggle with executive functioning, or the brain’s management system.
Kids with ADHD often brim with big ideas about all kinds of exciting things they want to do. But they lack the planning, organizational and problem-solving skills to carry them out.
Let’s say 12-year-old Tyler is fired up about building a go-cart the coming weekend. All week, he goes on about the color he’ll paint it, what the frame will be made of and who’s going to help him.
Come Saturday, he finally gets out of bed at 11:00. He hasn’t called any friends in advance, and everyone already seems to have plans. He realizes he doesn’t have any materials to build with.
His parents are busy running errands and can’t take him to get what he needs, however. (He never told them his plans.) Unable to figure out a new strategy or activity, he slumps down on the couch and spends the day “bored” and bummed out.
Ways to Help When Your Child Complains of Boredom
Boredom isn’t always a bad thing. It’s actually important for kids—even those with ADHD—to learn to deal with it to some extent.
It may take kids with ADHD a little longer to figure things out, so give your child time without jumping in with ideas. With gentle guidance from you, he may come up with a fun way to spend his time.
At the same time, there are things you can do to minimize boredom and help your child manage it on his own:
- Provide structure by scheduling afterschool and weekend activities.
- Encourage your child to plan in advance. Make a list together of what steps he can take to make sure he has things to do with his free time.
- Don’t drop everything to rescue him from boredom. Try inviting him to join in on what you’re doing—like weeding the garden or getting dinner ready.
- Set strict guidelines for screen time, and don’t be tempted to use it as a refuge for your child when he’s bored.
- Help him map out plans, make to-do lists and use a calendar as a visual prompt for structuring his time.
You can also check out indoor activities to help kids battle cabin fever.
Tackling Boredom at School and With Schoolwork
It’s not very likely a teacher will change what she’s doing mid-lesson to recapture the attention of a student with ADHD who’s lost interest after 10 minutes. So that child may very likely seek out new stimulation on his own—with typical ADHD behaviors. He might:
- Turn his attention to something in the hall, outside the window or elsewhere
- Horse around, interrupt or otherwise behave impulsively
- Squirm in his seat, ask to go to the bathroom or show other signs of hyperactivity
Whether or not your child has a 504 plan or an IEP, you can ask the teacher about possible accommodations. Your child could try using a resistance band on his chair, or sitting near the teacher, for instance. These can help keep him stimulated and engaged.
There’s a lot you can do at home to keep him engaged and enthusiastic about what he’s doing, too. Learn about ways to help him explore his strengths and passions. Check out fidgets for kids with ADHD. And discover games that can improve executive functions like planning and organization.