Not now. Later. Tomorrow. That’s when many teenagers say they plan to complete their household chores or tackle their homework. To a certain extent, this is normal—many of us have a tendency to delay, to put off until tomorrow what we don’t want to do today.
There is a difference, however, between the occasional delayer and someone who has an established, disabling pattern of procrastination fueled by an underlying issue. For parents, dealing with either can be a frustrating challenge. Discerning between the two can be even more difficult.
Procrastination comes in a few different forms:
For children, procrastination usually results in a negative consequence such as poor or failing grades, the inability to participate in extracurricular activities, or family consequences like loss of driving rights, screen time, or increased parental supervision.
If your child is encountering these negative consequences on a regular basis, then they likely suffer from procrastination. But, there are steps you can take to help break the behavior. In order to effectively parent a child who procrastinates, it’s first important to understand why your child puts off tasks.
There’s a common misconception that kids procrastinate because they are lazy or have low motivation. While low motivation can be a contributing factor, there are many others, including:
To understand your child’s procrastinating behavior, you need to talk openly and hear his or her perspective. Typically, kids are willing to share if they feel like you’re being supportive—they need to believe that you genuinely want to understand their fear so you can help them, not issue a series of consequences that may exacerbate feelings of disappointment.
As you listen, try to identify which of the underlying causes may be at play. Just as a physician can’t effectively treat a headache without knowing the underlying cause—dehydration, allergies, concussion, or tumor—you can’t effectively help your child stop procrastinating unless you understand what’s prompting the behavior. For instance, offering or withholding a reward for completing a task won’t help a child who is delaying because they don’t see why the task is relevant.
So what can a parent do? When your child’s anxiety prevents her from tackling necessary tasks, you need to intervene. These five steps can help:
This may be realistic for kids who are consistently high-achievers, but for children who struggle with just turning in their homework, such expectations may be too much. In this case, lean toward setting specific, achievable expectations such as structured time to do homework, study, or do chores.
Also remember to be clear and direct when stating your expectations. Doing so will help ensure that you and your child are on the same page—if your child still procrastinates after you have this conversation, restate your expectations and reinforce that they are accountable for their own actions and the corresponding consequences.</p
Is that scenario reasonable or likely? No. But kids who fear failure often spiral into a series of unrealistic, irrational, worst-case consequences. It’s called catastrophic thinking. In addition to contributing to anxiety and procrastination, this kind of thinking can lead to outbursts of bad behavior. A child may act out because they don’t know how to solve the problem appropriately.
You can help coach your child by teaching effective problem-solving techniques. Try breaking tasks up into more manageable chunks or setting smaller, more attainable goals. By helping your child understand how to develop a plan for tackling a problem, they may feel less overwhelmed by the amount of work involved with the task.
Because anxiety can be paralyzing, you may have to help your child get started. Consider giving her a defined start time. For instance, “After dinner at 6:00, let’s get started.” You can also try setting some rules around the process, like working for a certain amount of time without interruption, or completing a specific body of work before taking a break. This type of structure can help children (and adults!) manage anxiety and generate a sense of momentum and confidence.
Ultimately, your goal is to help your child learn to set reasonable expectations. Anxiety and fear are better managed by attempting to succeed at the task at hand rather than avoiding it. Said another way, fear doesn’t simply dissipate with the passage of time—it is only reduced through continuous effort, which leads to success. With parental support, a plan to tackle problems and a willingness to try, your child will be armed with tools to manage tasks effectively.
Michael Kramer, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist in the State of Maine. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Kentucky. His Portland practice is quite varied, providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, couples, and families. In addition, he is an Organizational Consultant and provides multiple services to a wide variety of for-profit and non-profit businesses. A final area of specialization is Sports Psychology.