The Procrastinating Child
Q: My 16-year-old is a procrastinator. Whether it’s studying, doing a project, even doing something she enjoys, she procrastinates, sometimes to the point of never doing anything! For example, she’s talented in art and thinks of art projects she wants to do, but never follows through. If I tell her she’s talented, that only seems to make it worse. How can I help her?
One of the most frustrating things about living with a procrastinator is understanding what she may want to do and watching her make choices that keep her from meeting her goals. Your daughter’s art, creativity, and lack of follow through is a good example. Focusing on your options might help you cope.
You might be a person who likes to meet due dates early, giving yourself time to deal with any last-minute conflicts. You might be a person who finds that the best way to deal with anxiety is to do things when you first agree to take them on. Your taxes might be complete on March 1st when others are in line at the post office on April 15th at 11:59 PM. Hopefully, you have learned that we all have our own timing and priorities and it may not be like any of our friends, co-workers, partners, or kids. Letting go of your expectations of others to think and act the way you would is your first step to helping your daughter. You get to be a helpful observer.
In your need to be helpful to your family, you may want to do some role modeling such as:
• Keeping up a family calendar,
• Checking in with everyone at dinnertime about their plans for the next day, and
• Asking about short- and long-range plans family members have.
Sharing your time management and organizational skills will help everyone know what’s on each family member’s plate each week. That is part of being a family. Even though you can’t make people do what you wish they would, you might be better able to track the family. This way you won’t make plans for the whole family to be doing something else if your daughter is up against a deadline. Let go of being disappointed and hurt if other family members don’t plan ahead the same way.
When we start thinking about realistic expectations for a 16-year-old, you have several things to consider. First, think about her personality style. Has she always been an enthusiastic and energetic person who wants to do everything and doesn’t know how to set limits for herself? Has she ended up over-committing, worrying, and being self-critical about herself when she really did have too much to do in too little time? If so, see if she wants to learn some basic time management skills.
Some people are visual and need to use a calendar that breaks a day into hours to help set up a realistic idea of how much time things take. Others do better by tracking themselves for a week and reviewing how they use their time. Making a daily or weekly “to do” list can also help your daughter learn to prioritize and focus. All of these activities require that she wants to be in charge of her habits and has a desire to change her frequent predicament of putting things off.
What if she really wants to do things differently but finds herself unable to change? Procrastination can be a byproduct of some other issues. Many people with ADHD and ADD are highly distractible and struggle on a daily basis with staying focused. There are a number of resources including charts, calendars with reminders, and action plans that break any large task into small measureable goals that might help with this aspect of procrastinating.
Others may procrastinate when they really want to be on top of the task ahead. Their distractions can come from another disorder that compels them to do meaningless tasks in a ritualistic way. This might be an indication of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Any diagnosis, including OCD or ADHD, needs a thorough assessment by a healthcare professional prior to making it, which cannot be made here. From your description, however, it doesn’t sound as if you have seen anything that has caused you to be concerned about OCD or ADHD.
You said that you remind her she is talented. Do you believe she procrastinates out of fear of not doing a good enough job? Sometimes perfectionist tendencies keep people from tackling big tasks. For the most part, the counseling community is seeing it more as a side effect of low self-confidence. Does she notice her own strengths? When she demonstrates one, catch her in the act so she remembers that she can do anything she wants to make happen, with effort, planning and some work.
What do you do if she really doesn’t mind putting things off? She might, in fact, tell you she gets a certain hyper-focus that is useful to her when she works under a tight deadline. She’s not alone. Some people like the adrenaline rush that they feel by operating this way. Does it work for her? Does she get the grades she wants?
You are an observer. What do you notice that she is doing instead of the art projects or homework that is due? What does that tell you about her priorities? Your goal is to put your daughter in charge of the results of her inaction and whether or not she believes putting things off is worth the stress and anxiety. If it works for her, you’ll need to let go. If it doesn’t work for her, you’ll still need to allow her to experience the results of not being able to be successful, and remain available as she practices new ways to get organized. Good luck!
The Procrastinating Child: A Handbook for Adults to Help Children Stop Putting Things Off by Rita Emmett
The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond by Donna Goldberg and Jennifer Zwiebel