Monday, July 29, 2013

Boredom Busters: Teens and Tweens

Contrary to what my 6-year-old thinks (and how she sometimes acts), we do not have a teenager living in our house just yet. Thankfully we've got a few years before then to brush up on our parenting prowess. But I've spent enough time with teens and tweens--and their parents--over the past decade (as a teacher, therapist, researcher, etc.) that I've learned a thing or two about adolescent development.

Much of my recent research has focused on how parents and teens communicate. Or, rather, how they don't communicate. It's a two-sided coin. Teens don't feel heard; parent's don't think their teens are listening. Teens say they can't talk to their parents about "certain" issues -- which are, ironically, the same issues that parents say they aren't sure how to broach with their teens.

Anyone who works with teenagers, has a teenager, or has been a teenager will attest: adolescence is one trying phase. For all parties involved.

While I could write for hours on adolescence and all it entails, I'll try to stick to July's topic: Kids and Boredom. So, just where do teens and tweens fit in the mix?

As you know, adolescence is a transitional period. Namely, it's the awkward years that turn a child into an adult. Biologically-speaking, we're talking puberty. Psychologically-speaking, however, we're talking about redefining oneself, one's identity, and one's relationships. Naturally, the parent-child relationship shifts during this process.

In order for teens to adjust to their new roles and responsibilities, their brains need to be pretty flexible. This is called neural plasticity (which is just a fancy way to say that the teenage brain is in the process of being rewired). This cognitive reorganization is a good thing, as it paves the way for adult independence and stability. But during adolescence, it leaves teen minds susceptible and vulnerable. Neural plasticity makes it challenging for teens and tweens to think through choices, and it lends itself easily to adolescent boredom. Teens crave (and need) more independence, but once granted, they're not quite sure what to do next...

This is where proactive parenting becomes so important. If teen independence isn't monitored -- and channeled into healthy outlets -- adolescents are at greater risk for substance abuse, sexual activity, even suicide. A teen pondering his purpose will ultimately identify voids in his life (e.g., gaps between who he's been and who he wants to be), and will work to bridge the two. Teens become more vulnerable to peer pressure and may experiment with new ideas, explore new activities, and hang out with new social circles.

Thought for today:  It's important that parents and professionals remember: Teen experimentation and exploration aren't necessarily bad things.  Teens, once they identify with something or someone, are pretty passionate.  If you see your teen "searching" (which may come off as boredom, or even depression), encourage him to rally for something he believes in. Volunteer for an organization. Join a club.  Mentor.  Adolescence is a good time for youth to figure out what they believe and why. The internal grappling teens do during these transitional years often influence the adults they become.

Practicing What I Preach: A portion of my faculty appointment at North Carolina State University includes work as an Extension Specialist. This entails collaborating with North Carolina 4-H.  Now being from the South, if you're like me, your first thoughts may be of livestock shows and the State Fair. Which is a part of 4-H.  But not all of it.  Encourage your teen, tween, or younger child to explore 4-H and all it has to offer in addition to the extra-curriculars offered through your school, church, and community.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Boredom Busters: Preschool and Elementary Years

Over the weekend we took a whirlwind road trip to surprise my father-in-law who retired after 40 years in his company.  We stayed less than 72 hours (and 24 of them were spent driving).  Needless to say, after 11 years of marriage, my husband and I have perfected the art of marathon drives.  My kids, by default, have too.

To prevent boredom from engulfing our four- and six-year-olds, I have learned to plan ahead.  My usual weapons: DVDs, books, art supplies, digital learning games, and a few toys for creative play.  I mix things up by packing toys, books, and movies that haven't been played with or viewed in awhile.  It's all about novelty.

But see, novelty is a Catch-22.  On a road trip it's a necessity.  In day-to-day life, however, novelty has cognitively spoiled today's children.  Preschoolers and elementary-age kids are accustom to new, novel, and varied experiences.  (My children included.)  Technology is at their disposal--and attention-deficits are on the rise.  Kids jump from channel-to-channel, game-to-game, and activity-to-activity with little time for reflective thought and minimal need for elongated attention spans.  Children have trouble concentrating, but many of their daily activities require little need for concentration.  Technological task-jumping often begets boredom.

As I discussed in a previous post, boredom isn't a bad thing.  Neither is technology.  But moderation is imperative.  Kids today are being raised on tech-toys, smartphones, tablets, and television.  On one hand, immersion in technology is training their young brains to be nimble and learn quickly; but on the other, children aren't being challenged to problem-solve with any depth.  They have less human contact, interaction, and collaboration; smaller vocabularies and fewer meaningful discussions; and minimized opportunities for concentration and reflection.

During elementary school, between the ages of 7 to 11, neuron growth rapidly occurs in the brain (nearly as quickly as that occurring in infancy and toddlerhood).  Parents and educators need to capitalize on this peak period for learning, imagination, and creativity by stimulating these growing minds.  Practical ways to do this include imposing limitations and encouraging exploration.

Limit your child's time on computers, smartphones, tablets, videogames, and watching TV.  Encourage independent reading, play, and creative outlets (such as art or writing).  Limit extracurricular activities.  Kids (and parents) are over-extended.  Encourage your child to chose one or two favorite "extras" that they enjoy most and do well.  Limit idle time.  Although kids need rest, they also need daily physical activity.  And finally, encourage family time that allows for discussion, laughter, reflection, problem-solving, and play.

Thought for today:  For the next week, keep a written log of your child's activities.  Make a schedule that tallies the time they spend learning, playing creatively, being with family, being physically active, socializing, using technology, and watching TV.  How balanced is their schedule?
Practicing What I Preach:  When we travel on long car trips, I try to break up their time in the car.  After my kids watch a movie, I'll turn off the DVD player and we'll sing songs or talk.  Or I'll encourage them to play with their toys independently.  I switch between allowing them to play with something that engages them (a DVD or a video game) and something that they engage with (art, books, make-believe toys).  I try to apply these same principles throughout the week as well, being sure to incorporate time for learning, physical activity, and family/friends.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Boredom Busters: Infants and Toddlers

If you read my last post, then you know that July's blog topic is kids and boredom.  (And if you're wondering, my own personal experiment in boredom totally worked.  After leaving my kids alone (figuratively speaking) with just their imaginations, each other, and all of their toys, the boredom woes were soon replaced with playing dress-up, making a "city" out of our guest room, and even {*gasp*} playing together nicely!) 

Luckily I know my kids (who are now 6 and 4 years old) and their stages of development well enough to know that they just needed to be left to their own devices.  They were bored because their need for creativity had been muffled by atypical, holiday fun.  Sometimes parents need to take a step back.

With infants and toddlers however, more often than not, parents need to stay involved.  From birth to age three, child brain development is occurring rapidly.  It's pivotal that parents foster experiences that capitalize on this exciting time in their tiny minds.  Nature and nurture work together to shape a child's brain, as genetic predispositions interact with a child's daily experiences and exposures to influence cognitive capacities.  In other words, kids are born with aptitudes that may flourish or fade based on his or her mental stimulation.

Neural connections are formed when babies are exposed to sensory stimulation: sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell.  As your infant grows into a toddler, the latter two will take on more importance.  But in the beginning, parents can provide opportunities for their little ones that include sight, touch, and hearing.


From early infancy, allow others to hold your baby for extended periods of time.  While nursing or feeding, a baby will stare at mom's face, which aids in bonding and attachment.  But make sure she sets her gaze upon others too: dad, grandma, big sister, etc.  Not only will this begin to build baby's trust and comfortability with additional caregivers, it will provide her with the chance to study new faces, hear new voices, and feel new embraces.

As baby develops, it's important to vary his exposure to different visual stimuli that are bold, bright, and colorful.  During tummy time, while laying or sitting assisted, looking up at a crib mobile, playing under or on an activity mat, going for a stroll in the neighborhood, looking at a mirror.  Mix things up so that your tiny tot isn't always looking at the same thing.  (And remember to be a Narrative Parent -- as you expose your baby to new things, talk about what he's seeing.  "See the doggie.  Dog.  Dogs say "woof, woof.")


Between 3 and 4 months of age, babies begin to reach for and grab objects.  So be sure to put plenty of safe objects in their reach.  Soft toys and rattles, infant keys, teethers.  Vary textures and temperatures, describing them as you go.  Help her pet the cat (soft) or touch daddy's 5 o'clock shadow (scratchy); place his hand on your water bottle (cold) or coffee mug (warm).  This is also a good way to introduce opposites and increase your child's vocabulary.  As a bonus, touch introduces cause and effect.  For  instance, offer toys with buttons that light up or play music.


To aid in a baby's understanding and production of spoken words, he needs to be spoken to.  A lot.  Talk to your baby and give him time to respond with a coo or smile.  Read to your baby or toddler daily.  Sing songs.  Play patty-cake.  Play music.  Offer musical toys (or a recycled plastic bottle filled halfway with dried beans for the baby to shake).  "Toys" don't need to be elaborate or expensive.  And don't forget that it's important to fill baby's ears with pleasant, interesting sounds.  Be mindful of sounds that may elicit adverse affects, such as yelling or arguing.

Thought for today:  If you have or regularly interact with a little one, take inventory of baby's sensory stimuli.  What can you do to promote sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste?
Practicing What I Preach:  In March, I became a proud, first-time aunt (not once, but twice) of a niece and nephew as both sisters-in-law gave birth one day apart.  It is wonderful to have little ones around again!  A week ago, my husband's family was in from out-of-state, giving me a reason to dust off more baby toys as I introduced them to my nephew.  His favorite?  Sitting up in the Bumbo and playing with a rattle that I attached to the lap tray.  This new experience allowed him to (1) sit up assisted, which employs new muscles and offers new views of his surroundings, and (2) to touch a "new" toy, which demonstrated cause and effect as he spun, shook, and pulled it.   
Early attempt at being Fun Aunt Nichole was a success. :)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Boredom Busters

Less than a week has passed since my son's 4th birthday party.  It was a small, family affair -- but one in which he racked up some major presents including a train table and a LeapPad2 (and Nerf guns, Legos, golf clubs, and several others -- too many to mention by name).  To boot, in the days following his party, we hosted out-of-town family, went to the beach, and to the movies.

But today, in the lull following a busy week, I hear that fingers-on-chalkboard-parenting-phrase, "Mom, I'm bored."


"How can you be bored?" I ask, reminding him of all of his new toys (and his old ones) scattered throughout our house, birthday banner still hanging on the mantel, and deflated party balloons on the floor (our living room resembling the summer lovechild of Toys R' Us and Party City).

All that we've done over the past few days, and all the new birthday loot, and still -- boredom.  If my grandfather was at our house now to overhear this conversation (who, by the way, continues to provide a vibrant 80-something presence in our lives), he would lecture me about all that ails today's generation of children who have more than they need, not appreciating things as they should, and that we are the generation of parents enabling their spoil.

And he would probably be right.

But, shy of going back to yesteryear and restituting first-world problems such as these, there are a few simple things that parents can do to remedy the boredom bug when it bites.  During the month of July, I will explore causes and solutions for boredom in kids, starting at infancy and continuing through late adolescence.  As kids grow, developmentally their needs for parental stimulation is cyclical.  As with all things, with boredom, too much or too little parental involvement can be problematic.  In the weeks to come, I'll share ways to balance the boredom continuum across these different phases of child development.

Thought for today:  Today I've decided that I will allow boredom to flourish in our house.  I will not attempt to pacify it with television, video games, or trips around town.  I will not make a blanket fort, or help them "discover" hidden toys tucked away in their closets otherwise forgotten.  Nope.  Today, instead, I will let my fully-abled kids resolve their boredom woes sans mommy's help.  I will challenge them to find something to do using their innate, creative abilities and imaginations.  I will help them reach toys and will fetch art supplies.  I will supervise.  But I won't lead.  Won't you join me?
Practicing What I Preach:  Days like today (when I know my son's boredom isn't the result of too little adult interaction and play, but rather the result of too much involvement and stimulation over the past few days), I have learned to take a step back.  When a child has constant adult interaction (for example, his paternal grandparents were in town and at his disposal for 5 consecutive days), or the result of constantly being on-the-go and entertained (uh-hum, the trip to the beach and movie theater), or too much newness and novelty (the birthday presents now decorating our den), a child has no need to entertain himself.  Over time, the ability to self-soothe and self-entertain becomes desensitized.   
(Think of it like muscular atrophy: You don't use a muscle, it weakens.  Creativity is much the same way.  Constantly being entertained by someone or something else will weaken a child's ability to imagine or explore on his own.)   
Today's boredom buster: A little mental workout in creativity.  To build and strengthen his imagination, I will allow my kiddo to wallow in his boredom blues until his creative, independent juices start flowing again.  Happy "Independence" Day!  :)