Originally published on Grown and Flown, November 16, 2022
Procrastination: “the action of delaying or postponing something.” Your definition may be “the source of all my fights with my teenager.” It’s not a new topic, but it’s a conversation you can’t bear to have one more time. What can you do?
Behind your child’s defensiveness and your frustration is a reason—the source of the procrastination. Task initiation, time management, and attention are a few culprits that often fill that role.
We’re all familiar with time management and attention, but “task initiation” puts a name on a struggle that many can’t quite articulate. We all know the feeling of not being able to start something: a task we don’t want to do, an email we’ve been putting off. Task initiation isn’t just a lack of motivation—it’s an executive function (EF) skill that not everyone has. EF skills come naturally to many but must be learned by others.
Many diagnoses, such as ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, and depression, are known to be accompanied by EF challenges, including struggling to start a task. Neurotypical kids may also face some of these challenges, and that’s normal! But it’s up to us to help them build up the skills that aren’t as strong so they succeed academically and beyond.
What can a parent do when initiating a task is a struggle
When initiating a task is a struggle, it can stem from many underlying causes. If your child cannot bring themselves to start a project, try to sit with them and figure out where their avoidance is coming from.
If they’re in college, you might be on the receiving end of a panicked phone call…are they feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the project? Are they avoiding it because they don’t have an excellent grasp of the content? Are they preemptively nervous that their project won’t be good enough?
Feeling overwhelmed is common, but sometimes we forget what that felt like at 17 or 18. It felt like the world was crumbling down around us, and we couldn’t catch a break: too much to do and too little time. If we do poorly on this assignment, it could bring our grades down, and with it, our ability to get into a good college and get a good job, and — it’s paralyzing, and that can be hard to snap out of quickly.
If you find your child in this position, remind them that teachers and professors are regular people. They get overwhelmed too, and one quick email asking for an extension is worth preventing a multiple-hour meltdown.
Please work with your child to make a different game plan for next time, and try to figure out a system where they’re open to you, holding them accountable, but in a blame-free way. If you have the human resources available, see if there’s someone else they’d be ok with holding them accountable. With middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college-aged kids, accountability is often more well-received when it comes from someone other than a parent.
Overwhelm goes hand in hand with anxiety, which can be a huge driver of task initiation challenges. Anxiety knows precisely when the project is due. Anxiety has a pretty good grasp of what needs to be done. Every minute that passes on a Thursday night, before a Friday deadline, anxiety is thinking about the project that needs to be done.
There’s even a mental outline, maybe. At 9 pm, when we finally sit down to start the paper, the (often self-applied) pressure reaches an unbearable level. Whether we can turn it in before 11:59 pm or not, it’s taking a toll on our mental health, and we need to break this habit. When your child gets some help starting the paper, or the project, earlier in the week, this race against the clock doesn’t rear its head as aggressively.
Lack of understanding or learning differences
This part can be the hardest. Procrastination, skipping class, poor grades, and lying (a punch to every parent’s gut) can all stem from a lack of understanding in some capacity. This should NOT be mistaken for lack of intelligence!
This also doesn’t mean they’re unable to grasp a concept — they may just be struggling with class pacing or how content is presented (aurally, visually, etc.). Suppose you’re consistently getting last-minute project announcements from your high schooler (Mom, I have a DBQ poster due tomorrow for history. Do we have any poster board?) or tearful, 11 pm phone calls from your college student (panicking about a subject they’ve always loved). In that case, you may be wondering: What is the hold-up? Why are they putting this off? They’ve always loved history. What shifted?
This is an easy trap to fall into. Comparing your child’s previous interests and successes makes perfect sense to you; they’re incredibly smart and love learning, yet they’re struggling, and you can’t understand why. Sometimes you vocalize this to show how much faith you have in them.
Suppose they could only see themselves and their intelligence the way you do! You know they have “it” in them; you’ve seen “it” repeatedly. Your priority is to help them succeed; this feels like encouragement from a parent’s perspective.
What they hear, for better or worse, is this: You used to be so good in history. What happened?
They know they’re smart. They know that as soon as they grasp a concept, it’ll stick with them for the foreseeable future. But after hearing that they’re smart and have “got this,” your child can’t find the courage to tell you what’s happening: they’re trying to take notes fast and can’t always keep up. It’s tough to listen, look at the board, and write or type; when they get behind, they feel defeated.
Our kids, especially teens, are rarely going to share this information with us voluntarily. They’re sensitive, and they have assumptions about how we may react. They may feel ashamed that they can’t meet the made-up expectation they think you have.
So as much as you can, with no threats or punishments on the table, ask if there’s something you can help with. Task initiation is often the easiest area to support. For many students, that’s the biggest hurdle, and once they’ve begun, they’re good to go. But, even if that’s not the big hold-up, starting a project with them can give you insight into where the struggle is coming from.
Fear of failure
The tree of anxiety has many branches. This often looks different depending on gender: girls are significantly more prone to anxious tendencies than boys. That anxiety can show up as perfectionism, or even obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Perfectionism is the enemy of procrastination. A perfectionist would rather avoid turning something in altogether than in something they’re not 100% happy with; their fear of failure has more control over them than they probably realize. A perfectionist with OCD may write and rewrite notes until they’re color-coded to their liking, and the handwriting is flawless.
If your child has perfectionist tendencies, they may spend significantly more time completing assignments than their peers. This is especially tough if they wait until the last minute to start assignments — see if you can work with them to set time limits on specific steps of projects and encourage them to start projects as soon as they get the rubric or instructions. If they finish the project before the deadline, once they’re through all of the steps, they can go back and “tweak” things until they’re more satisfied with their final result.
The goal is to avoid settling into an “all or nothing” mindset. “If I can’t do it right, I have no interest in doing it at all” is a hard attitude to change, but it’s not impossible.
Accountability and a nudge to get started are two significant steps to overcoming procrastination tendencies, especially those that stem from trying to start an assignment. However, if your child is away at college, you may not personally be able to provide that support.
If your teen is away at college and procrastinating, what can you do to help them?
1. Please encourage them to explore campus resources: Writing centers, subject matter tutoring, and multiple other resources are offered on campuses, and many are free. If they’re open to that support, help your child discover which resources are available at their institution.
2. Look into executive function coaching or academic coaching: Ask an expert! These coaches can help your child develop the strategies and tools they need to get through school and thrive in a professional setting.
3. Consult with a medical professional: If there are mental hurdles your child can’t quite tackle on their own, that’s ok. Medical professionals can have valuable insight into your child’s challenges and help them overcome those roadblocks.
There are many tips and tricks to help prevent procrastination. But before we can get into that nitty-gritty, we must get over the biggest hurdle: initiating the task or starting the project.