Ask a Therapist: What should I do about bored teenagers?

Therapist Anastasia Pollock answered our Ask a Therapist question: What should I do about bored teenagers?

Summer is here! While most teens are rejoicing in the beginning of the summer to be free of school and homework, joy can quickly turn into boredom as once structured schedules become more lax and teens quickly become bored. This often creates increased stress for parents, who do not always get to join their kids on summer break and don`t know what to do to keep them busy. Luckily, there are answers to better understand how and why teens become bored so easily and what we can do as parents to support them.
Teenage brains are different than adult brains. According to Daniel Siegel, the teenage brain is going through wonderful and necessary changes that will help kids to launch into adulthood. According to Dr. Siegel, the brain is undergoing a remodeling where it is making new connections and preparing the teen to become independent, creative, and to have better cognitive control. As the brain goes through these changes, it starts to have changes in dopamine base levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in drive and reward. It is one of the neurotransmitters that is released when we do something exciting or that feels good. In the adolescent brain, the dopamine baseline is lower, meaning they are more likely to be bored. It takes more the get that dopamine release, but when they do have it, the amount of dopamine released is higher than in the adult brain. This helps the teen to seek out novel activities and to be excited about being alive. The teen`s brain is wired to seek out reward more often and to take risks. This also helps kids to prepare to leave the nest and is seen in other adolescent mammals as well.
This is all great news. The struggle parents often face is fear that their adolescents are going to engage in activities that are dangerous. So what do we do?
Have a Conversation
The first step in addressing this issue of bored teens and concerns about risk-taking starts with having a conversation with your teen about his or her brain and why it is so great. 'Brainstorm' by Daniel Siegel is a great book parents and teens can read together. When teens understand WHY they`re bored, the start to understand their bodies better and can better tolerate the feelings of boredom. When they have the urge to engage in risky behaviors, and they can understand why, they are more likely to slow down their thinking so they can make the best decisions.
Hear Them Out
As difficult as it may be, don`t roll your eyes every time your teen says they`re bored. Instead, refer to the above conversation and let them express what they are going through. Remember, you were once a bored teen too and it`s nice to feel heard and understood. This is good for you kid and great for your relationship with them.
Accompany Them
After you have heard and validated your teen, help them to work through their boredom. Normalize what they are experiencing. Remember, the teen brain is primed to seek out new and exciting experiences so try to direct your teen towards activities that are fun, challenging, and healthy. Include your teen in the conversation about what might interest or challenge them during the summer. Their brains are very creative and you may be surprised about what they come up with. You can also tap into your own creativity. For example, if your teen enjoys physical activity, come up with a fun challenge where they try to improve their sprinting speed by practicing every day and offer a reward at the end of the challenge if they meet their goals. The challenge ad reward will give them the dopamine release they are craving in a healthy way.
Think about doing some or all of the activities you or your kids thinks of with them. Tap into your own inner teen and try to rediscover life with your kid. This is a chance to bond and to show your kid how to find excitement in life in healthy ways.