The pattern is always the same. Staying up late to complete homework that could have been started earlier and assignments finished in a frantic last-minute rush. What do you do when your child is a procrastinator?
If your child procrastinates, it’s not because they are lazy. Their tendency to leave things to the last minute might make you question their level of motivation, but procrastination is often a symptom of other underlying issues, the main culprits being a need for control, anxiety and poor organisational skills.
There are three main types of procrastinators. Your child might fit clearly into one category or they might be a mixed procrastinator and tick multiple boxes.
Knowing your child’s procrastination type is essential. If you don’t understand the driving force behind their procrastination, you won’t be able to help them break their procrastination habit. Use the information below to help you figure out their procrastination style. Let’s look at each of these types of procrastinator in a little more detail.
The need-for-control procrastinator
These kids are sensitive to being controlled and resent having tasks imposed upon them by others. As their name suggests, the need-for-control procrastinator delays starting tasks to take back control.
Throughout adolescence, teens develop a stronger sense of self, and with this comes both a desire for more freedom and an acute sensitivity to the feeling of being controlled. Some see homework as a violation of their right to be in control of their own life, and this drives their resistance to homework and their propensity to procrastinate. To the need-for-control procrastinator, starting tasks ahead of time isn’t a course of action that helps their own interest; it’s an intolerable concession of control and procrastination helps them to save face.
The anxious procrastinator
There are two types of anxious procrastinators: perfectionistic procrastinators and easily-overwhelmed procrastinators.
Perfectionistic procrastinators procrastinate because they place undue pressure on themselves to excel academically and procrastinate to delay evaluation by others.
Easily-overwhelmed procrastinators, on the other hand, have a lower threshold for stress and are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety in the face of multiple assessments and overlapping deadlines. Like perfectionistic procrastinators, easily-overwhelmed procrastinators procrastinate to avoid the stress and anxiety that schoolwork triggers. But while procrastination offers relief from stress and anxiety in the short-term, it causes more stress longer-term as work builds up and deadlines multiply. It might seem counterintuitive to rely on a strategy that ultimately makes things worse, but anxiety isn’t logical. Anxious teens are motivated by a desire to feel less anxious, and the short-term relief that procrastination offers is what entices perfectionistic procrastinators and easily-overwhelmed procrastinators to procrastinate.
The poorly-organised procrastinator
Poorly-organised procrastinators lack the skills they need to plan ahead and stay on task. Their procrastination is due to a skills deficit, not laziness.
There’s evidence to suggest that some teens procrastinate because their developing brains can’t yet support the cognitive skills they need to self-regulate and stay on task. Their procrastination might seem deliberate, but this isn’t necessarily the case. The inability of poorly-organised procrastinators to plan ahead and meet deadlines may actually be a symptom of them not yet having the neural scaffolding they need to be proactive and task-focused.
If your child is a poorly-organised procrastinator, their procrastination should reduce over time as their brain develops, but the brain is also incredibly plastic and has the ability to change itself to support the learning of new skills. So the good news is, your child doesn’t have to wait for their prefrontal cortex to be remodelled to break free of their procrastination cycle. They can speed up the rewiring of their brain by learning and practising new skills for organisation.
If it was as simple as choosing not to procrastinate, your child would have done that by now. Threatening consequences and offering rewards also won’t work, because motivation isn’t the issue—skills are.
Your child is missing the key skills they need to break free of their procrastination. Need-for-control procrastinators lack the skills they need to complete tasks others have asked them do; anxious procrastinators are missing the skills they need to better manage their anxiety; and poorly-organised procrastinators are lacking when it comes to organisational skills.
Staying up late to help your child finish work they’ve left to the last minute or emailing teachers on their behalf to request extensions might help to avoid a meltdown in the short-term, but saving them from the natural consequences of their procrastination is a band-aid solution and it won’t help them to do things differently in the future. What your child needs is help to learn the missing skills driving their procrastination.
To help your child break out of their procrastination cycle, you first need to understand the underlying cause of their procrastination. If the skills you try to help them build don’t match their procrastination type, your efforts won’t be effective. Not only that, if your approach is incompatible with their procrastination type you might inadvertently make things worse. For instance, if your child procrastinates because they resent having homework forced on them, stepping in to try to help them to be more organised may backfire. They’ll see your efforts as an attempt to control them and be even more resistant to starting work as a result.
When you start to put things into practice, it’ll be tempting to closely supervise your child’s progress to make sure they implement the skills and strategies you’ve discussed, but be mindful of the difference between supporting them and enabling them by taking on their responsibilities.
Whether or not your child meets their deadlines is their responsibility. Help them to plan, encourage them to practise skills and make time to help them if they have asked for help in advance, but don’t force compliance or stay up late to help them finish work they should have started earlier. If you’ve had support in place to help your child finish their assignment ahead of time but they’ve chosen to leave things to the last minute, don’t step in to help.
Handing in an incomplete assignment or losing marks for handing an assignment in late will be distressing, but it’s this distress that will help your child to reflect on their actions and acknowledge the need for change. If you help them to finish their assignment, the distress of finishing everything in a mad rush will be overpowered by their relief at getting a completed assignment in on time, and they’ll stay stuck in their cycle of procrastination.
As with any new skill, your child will need time to consolidate the skills they require to stop procrastinating, but if despite support and natural consequences they continue to struggle to get school work completed, it might be worthwhile investigating whether there are any underlying learning difficulties contributing to the problem.
Assessments can be expensive, but if there are attention or learning difficulties at play, you need to know what you’re dealing with so you can know how to help. Persistent procrastination might also signal the need for additional support around other underlying causes, such as clinical perfectionism, anxiety disorders and mood-related disorders.
If you want to take a step back and let your child be responsible for their deadlines, but you’re worried they won’t stay on track without you, apps are a good middle ground. There are a range of apps designed to help chronic procrastinators to procrastinate less. Each app has a slightly different focus so it’s important to pick apps that match your child’s needs, but here are a couple of good examples.
Todoist can help your child stay on top of their homework and assignments. It allows them to create efficient to-do lists complete with due dates and tasks listed according to their level of priority, making it easy for them to keep track of their deadlines. If large tasks overwhelm them, they can break tasks down into smaller sub-tasks, and best of all the app allows them to send themselves task reminders via email or push notifications, which means you can stop monitoring their due dates because the app will do it for you.
Self-control and Freedom
Both of these apps allow users to block any addictive applications that might interfere with productivity for a set period of time. And they mean business. Once you’ve set your restriction time limits, access to blocked sites is impossible. You can restart your computer or delete the application but it won’t matter. The only way to access blocked sites is to wait for the time to pass. Self-control and Freedom are both great for those who get distracted by Facebook, Instagram and any other social media platforms when studying.
An edited extract from Skip The Drama by Dr Sarah Hughes, available from exislepublishing.com and wherever good books are sold.