Procrastination. We all do it. We put off what we can do today, for tomorrow, or the next day. Whether it’s cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, or waiting until the ‘last minute’ to finish a school project, most everyone procrastinates to a certain extent. Common assumption about procrastination is that it is a sign of laziness. But is that really what is happening? In her recent article in The New York Times, “Why You Procrastinate”, Charlotte Lieberman explains that procrastination is not a character flaw, but rather a coping mechanism.
Learning how to cope with uncomfortable feelings in healthy ways is part of growing up and a skill that needs to develop for children. It is important to know that wanting to avoid unpleasant feelings is normal. But to help children with procrastination, it’s helpful for parents to understand what is going on behind the behavior.
‘I can’t wait to take out the garbage!’ said no one, ever! Many tasks, like taking out the trash, are not attractive to most people. To some these tasks are gross, for others they are boring, but there tends to be some sort of an emotional response. For most, if not all, activities we attach an emotional value to them (like disgust or boredom to household chores), but for others, like school or homework, the emotions can be more complex. For example, some children are excited to read a new book, but for another child reading a book can cause frustration, anxiety, or self-doubt. As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love, some “children feel shame when they don’t know everything.”(2)
When we procrastinate we often evaluate the emotions associated with the activity at hand with the emotions of a more attractive alternative. And this is where procrastinating often takes place. For example, instead of beginning a new science project a teen may choose their algebra homework because they are more familiar with the concepts and content. They aren’t being lazy, rather they are avoiding the unpleasant, yet normal, emotions associated with starting something new and unknown.
“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem. It is the primacy of short-term mood repair, over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions”(1) says Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.
The problem presents itself when unfinished schoolwork becomes patterned behavior. Temporarily putting off an unappealing school project is normal for children and likely won’t have large consequences, but putting it off completely surely will. Not only can children earn a poor grade, but their emotional health suffers as they may begin to feel badly about themselves. Common assumption is that these kinds of emotions should motivate a child to finish their school work the next time, but in fact research shows quite the opposite.
“The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what fuels the behavior. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief as well as a reward for procrastinating. And we know that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again”(1) says Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. But telling ourselves to ‘stop procrastinating’ doesn’t address the root cause. Instead it perpetuates and emboldens the emotions that drive procrastination.
“Fears don’t go away because someone tells you not to worry – what is reassuring is you have someone to turn to who can help you,”(3) notes the Piepers in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood.
So how can parents help their child with procrastination?
Because children are still learning, mistakes are normal and to be expected. Helping children understand that it is okay to make mistakes and to practice self-compassion can help lessen procrastinating behavior. In this way parents can support their child’s innate desires to be successful, bolster life skills to persevere in the face of obstacles, and to keep trying.
Citing Dr. Sirois’ work, Charlotte Lieberman continues, “In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam. [And] in a 2012 study examining the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination, Dr. Sirois found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion. In fact, several studies show that self-compassion supports motivation and personal growth. Not only does it decrease psychological distress, which we now know is a primary culprit for procrastination, it also actively boosts motivation, enhances feelings of self-worth and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative.”(1)
For parents, modeling forgiveness and compassion may sound something like:
‘It’s okay that your project was late. Everyone is late on things at some point in their lives, it’s normal. You are a student and still learning. You had a lot of tests that week, so maybe you are being too hard on yourself.’
To help your child in midst of the procrastination, the Piepers advise that “the first step is to show [your child] that you are on his side. Then ask what you can do to help.”(4)
This can be achieved by helping them understand their feelings by reflecting objectively what you are observing and show that you are listening by empathizing or sympathizing with their feelings. After you see the anxiety or frustration lessen in your child, ask them how you can help. Offer ideas on how to break up the homework or assignment into bite-sized tasks so things don’t feel so overwhelming. Then do some of those tasks together. Some examples may be:
Observe: ‘I see you don’t want to work on your science project.’
Child: ‘There’s too much to do!’
Empathize: ‘Having a lot to do can feel super overwhelming. No one likes to feel that way.’
Problem-solve: ‘Would you like my help? Maybe we can break down the project into small steps. Let’s see if we can figure out those first three steps and then tackle them together.’
Observe: ‘It looks like the math homework is making you upset.’
Child: ‘It doesn’t make sense!’
Empathize: ‘Math can be tough. It can be frustrating when things are confusing.’
Problem-solve: ‘Would you like me to sit next to you while you work? I can pay bills and be here if you need help or have any questions.’
The Piepers note, “Your goal is to show [them] that learning can be fun, do your very best to be positive when answering his questions. For example, if he has made a mistake, rather than telling him he has done something wrong, tell him he made a good try.”(4)
Parents can also help their child with procrastination by making the project or homework more tolerable or enjoyable. Offer to make their favorite snack, play music they enjoy, or create a game out of monotonous work.
Lastly, it is important to remember that learning how to tackle unappealing tasks or homework is a work in progress. It is normal if one week is fine while the next has you needing to help your child with their emotions. Save talking about your own frustration for a friend or spouse, and know if your child makes a mistake or misses an assignment, this is normal. Offer them forgiveness and compassion, and guide them back to the path of feeling good!
“Your teenager’s awareness that his parents remain available and committed to him is actually the most important ingredient in his evolving conviction that he can regulate his own life so as to make himself happy and to bring happiness to others.”(2)
Smart Love Sources