Every parent has experienced a child who procrastinates! The behavior is, in fact, a normal part of human development. We eat, we sleep, and often, we put off until tomorrow what we should be doing today.
Children dawdle for different reasons. Most toddlers and preschoolers don’t consciously procrastinate; they just take a long time to do things. Simple tasks such as getting dressed or picking up toys are, in reality, big jobs for little people. They need adult guidance, parental patience and actual time to experience success. Power struggles and arguments will only result in an anxious child.
As students enter the elementary years, most procrastinate because they don’t understand how to execute larger assignments or coordinate multiple tasks. Time-management issues and general confusion are the prime reasons why children wait until the last minute or miss a homework deadline. Working on how to use a calendar and how to break larger projects into manageable parts will help them develop organizational skills and a future work ethic void of problematic behaviors.
True procrastinating behaviors typically take root in early adolescence. As one enters the teen years, the plight of independence begins as kids seek to free themselves from parental restrain. Many begin to actively argue while at the same time attempt to passively delay expectations. Can’t it wait?, Not right now, and I will do it later are typical teen mantras designed to avoid undesirable responsibilities.
While some adolescents are only testing boundaries, others are developing bad habits. Interestingly, the desire to delay is not necessarily about poor time management. The causing catalysts of adolescent avoidance typically falls into a few different areas.
Some procrastinators are thrill-seekers who enjoy the euphoric rush of a finishing a big project just under the wire. This can be an exciting game of limit-testing that also comes with bragging rights, especially if the student performs well. Others are avoiders who prefer to do less important, easier work so they can delay doing an unfavorable, more difficult task. This can actually be a productive process where much gets accomplished, but it also is a stressful methodology as big projects are placed on hold. Lastly, there are the perfectionists. These teens overproduce, write multiple drafts, or continually recheck their work worrying about a perfect product rather than successful completion.
If you have a procrastinating teen, in most situations, it is a normal part of adolescent growth. Suggesting strategies such as making a good to-do list, creating small manageable tasks for big projects, and avoiding digital distraction can be helpful. A smart conversation about work style, stress, and high anxiety is, however, more likely to promote more permanent change than a laundry list of ideas.
Procrastination is not, by definition, a mental health disorder but it can be life-impairing. As teens leave home, the inability to meet deadlines can create college disasters, employment failures and social distress. Many adult procrastinators actually begin to depend on stress. The only way for these avoiders to feel energized and successful is to wait until the last minute to accomplish big tasks, which, in reality, is a sure-fire method to derail life success.
Be patient with your procrastinating offspring and understand that gradual changes are longer-lasting than temporary victories. Sometimes kids need to fall down before they stand on their own feet. Life’s best lessons are often best learned the hard way. If, on the other hand, procrastination impairs every part of your child’s life (home, school and friendships), don’t procrastinate and seek professional assistance.
Prior to going into private practice as psychotherapist and learning disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S, M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.