Always running late? Homework doesn’t get done? Chores are regularly forgotten? Teen procrastination can create so much stress and anxiety for parents, as well as the kids doing it. They may think they’re good at working under pressure, but they’re just piling on the stress that will lead to burnout. While some procrastination is completely normal, the teenage years are the perfect time to work on building new tools that will prepare them for the increasing challenges of high school, college and beyond.
What if teens didn’t procrastinate?
Imagine living in a world where your teens get all their homework done on time, complete chores without being reminded, and are ready to get out the door on time? Well, that may not happen any time soon, but you can at least make some progress towards a more harmonious routine.
Constantly chasing your kids around the house to get ready to leave, or enforcing rules to get homework done before breaks or TV watching, can put a strain in your relationship plus add all kinds of stress to your everyday life. It seems like by middle school, and especially high school, they should know better. Right? Well, maybe…
We all procrastinate. So why worry?
Some procrastination is totally normal. But these days, our teens are dealing with higher expectations, more to do at school, and more distractions. Constant procrastination can have a severe impact not just on their performance at school or in sports, but also in their daily levels of stress and anxiety. Plus, they are developing habits that will be much harder to break in the future.
Teens’ brains are malleable, so now is a key time to develop the right skills and habits that will help them now and in the future. Not only that, they’re just a short time away from leaving the nest as they go live on their own to go to college.
Why do teens procrastinate?
There are many studies about teens’ brains and the main reasons why they procrastinate. Articles in Psychology Today and other similar resources discussing early adolescence point out a variety of reasons, and they seem to agree on these:
Feeling overwhelmed with the task at hand.
Sometimes new tasks can feel like too much to handle. This is especially true when it’s a new type of project or assignment that they are unfamiliar with. When you don’t know where to start, you can sit there spinning your wheels. Teens can also feel like they’re not smart enough to take on a more challenging task, adding to their desire to delay.
Feeling the need to control some part of their lives.
By the time kids reach middle school, they start testing their own independence, which includes resisting parents’ requests and instructions. By the time kids reach the teen years, they are tired of following rules and push back on demands from parents or teachers. While developing independence is appropriate for this age, turning everything into “I’ll do it later” goes against the responsibilities that come from being independent.
Teens haven’t felt the consequences of delays and procrastination.
Some teens will tell you that they perform better “under pressure”. Don’t believe them! Maybe they crammed for an exam at the last minute, and got lucky and didn’t fail. Or they were late getting out the door for a sports practice, and there wasn’t any traffic so they didn’t arrive late. That may happen once or twice, but it’s certainly not sustainable. Teens who procrastinate do not realize the level of stress and anxiety that they are putting on themselves, or that it’s only going to get worse from here.
So many distractions. So many.
We live in a time where apps are being built to promote engagement. Basically, apps for teens are designed to be addictive. Every teen can open Instagram or TikTok to check something “real quick” and get sucked into it for an hour or more. I know my kids are totally guilty of this.
All of these are legitimate reasons. Teenagers’ tendency to procrastinate comes from a combination of their age, wanting freedom (etc.), not totally knowing how long things take to complete, and human nature.
But does that mean we should let it keep happening? Let’s do something about it!
Make a Plan to Attack Your Teen’s Procrastination
New habits, together with rewards and consequences, will drive a new routine that will help minimize the temptation to procrastinate. I’ve seen many “tips and tricks” to helping your teen end procrastination, but I believe that achieving change will come from setting up a new process.
Talk about the main causes of your teen’s procrastination.
Instead of coming to your teen with a plan, have a conversation to talk about what you’re seeing. Use a couple of examples to get your teen to think about what they’re feeling when that happens. When teens are given the freedom and power to identify what’s going on, and how that affects their level of stress and anxiety, they can be part of the solution. This is key to increase the chances of this new process taking hold.
Define a plan together and agree on the work plus rewards.
If there are a few issues to address, agree to work on the most important one or two at a time. I’ve found that, at least with my teens, too many changes at once can be overwhelming. So it’s easier to start with one change at a time. Decide together what you’ll address first: getting ready for school in the morning, making sure all homework is done before 10pm, doing all chores on Saturday morning before having time with friends, or whatever works best for your family.
Break down the day into small steps.
The best way to break free from inaction, and procrastination, is to figure out the first step and just do it. Set up routines that are realistic for their schedule. For example, if your teen has trouble getting ready for school in the morning, you can use our sample plan for a new Back to School routine. If they wait until the last minute to study for a test, work out specific times to study every day for the 3 days before the test.
Set calendar items and reminders.
Sometimes the hardest part of a new routine is remembering to follow it. So, feel free to cheat a little and set up reminders with calendar items or recurring alarms the phones. We have alarms for waking up, time to start breakfast, last check of the backpack, and time to get in the car to go to school.
Make sure your teen plans for “me” time.
I recently had an interesting conversation with my son’s tennis coach. He walked him through his day, all 24 hours, and they decided together how much time was ideal for consistent tennis training. They made sure to leave enough “me” time for my son so he didn’t feel like he was losing all of his free time. Sometimes busy teens delay working on homework or chores because they feel they don’t have enough downtime. But, if you work through all the hours available outside of sleeping and school, you will most likely find enough free time. This will help them realize they can actually do a good job on homework, chores, sports and arts, and still enjoy down time.
Check in… How is it going? How can I help?
All new routines need a little evaluation and adjustment… Just because you set a plan to start doesn’t mean everything will be fixed on the first try. Set a time once per week to chat about how things are going. Use the time to highlight any progress and improvement that you’ve seen. Also show appreciation to your teen for putting in this extra effort to make things better. And ask if the new plan is working for them, and give them a chance to suggest changes that will make it easier or better for them.
It’s true that you and your teen should feel the intrinsic rewards of less stress and feeling less rushed. However, celebrating your teen’s improvements will help reinforce the importance of this new lifestyle for them and the entire family. They will feel rewarded for taking ownership of their work and meeting deadlines. A trip to their favorite ice cream shop can be an easy way to keep your kid motivated and inspired to keep it up.
Build the Tools to End Teen Procrastination
Everyone procrastinates at some point or another. And all of us fall back on these bad habits more often than we would like to admit. It’s not going to be perfect all the time. Building the tools now, when teens’ brains are the most malleable, will prepare them for the increasing challenges in life. Now is the time to make some changes! This is not something they’ll magically learn on their own without some guidance.
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