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"Mom, I'm Bored" - What He Really Means

You're bound to feel a little perplexed when your child tells you he's bored. When Trey Lindsley, 6, of Arlington, VA, said just that to his mom, she thought, "There's so much for him to do! I've seen him entertain himself just pretending that a stick was a rocket ship."

Indeed, it's nearly impossible for young grade-schoolers to really experience boredom, says Susan Zuckerman, Ph.D., a child psychologist in White Plains, NY: "The world is still interesting and new to them." In fact, when a child says he's bored, he probably doesn't even know what he means.

What kids do instinctively know is that this phrase  -- which they learn from adults and television  -- conveys discontent without worrying Mom or Dad. "A child will use it as a catchall expression when something's bothering him," says Zuckerman. What does your youngster really mean? Some possibilities:

"This project is too hard."

Most kids hate to admit when they're struggling with a task. Instead of fessing up to confusion with a math problem, for instance, a child may say, "I'm bored," and push the book away. "It protects his ego while removing him from something unpleasant," says Zuckerman.

"I'm lonely."

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, of South Pasadena, CA, notices that her son, 5-year-old Sasha, says "I'm bored" when he wants her to play with him. "The words often really mean 'I'd like your love and attention,'" says Laurie Segal, an early-childhood development expert in Great Neck, NY. Whether your child wants you to get off the phone and take a walk, or ask how his day went, he may not request these things directly because he doesn't always know exactly what he'd like or how to tell you.

"I'm overstimulated."

Adults know when the time has come to remove themselves from the action and retreat to the bedroom with a book; kids often don't, so their need comes out by their expressing boredom.

"I'm sad" or "I'm mad."

Kids can't always figure out their feelings, especially troubling ones like sorrow or anger, and such emotional discomfort may slip out as "I'm bored."

To interpret what your child is actually experiencing when he claims ennui, observe his body language. Is he slumped over, looking pensive? He's probably down in the dumps. Is he frowning with his arms folded? It's a good bet he's angry. Or ask him what he means, and if he doesn't give you a clear answer, throw out a few questions: "Did something at school make you frustrated? Would you like to take a break?" Once your gentle probing uncovers the real issue, you can help him deal with it.

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