Recently, I was sitting on my couch, computer open and staring at my phone when a text popped up. It was from a teenaged client struggling with anxiety. She wrote something to the effect of: “How do I make myself do my homework assignment? I know I need to, but I am just too lazy.” (You may also like to read: How To Stop Nagging and Reconnect With Your Teen)
Part of me wanted to laugh since I was staring at my phone because I, too, was procrastinating. I wanted to be working on an article with a deadline that I was halfway through writing, but I couldn’t quite motivate myself to open the document. My phone was much easier.
I don’t think there is a person out there who hasn’t found themselves procrastinating at some point. Some of us more than others.
I am a particular fan of what I have termed “productive procrastination.” That is when I do something productive like organizing my linen closet instead of doing the more pressing, time-sensitive task I am avoiding. I rationalize that the productive task needs to be done, but the truth is that it really doesn’t.
Teen procrastination is a common problem
Procrastination is not an easy habit to break, particularly for unmotivated teenagers with no life experience.
Calling yourself lazy actually makes it harder to break. The task is made even more complicated when teenagers hear adult voices calling them lazy. (Also read: 8 Genius Responses For When Your Teen Is Being Lazy And Entitled (We Say in Our Head)
In general, insulting ourselves and others reduces motivation rather than increasing it. In the case of procrastination, it is also an inaccurate insult. Teen procrastination is rarely a problem of laziness. It is actually a difficulty with emotion regulation which is still developing in the teen brain.
We put things off because it is difficult for us to tolerate a feeling that the activity brings up for us. In my case and my client’s, we were procrastinating to avoid the anxiety evoked by what we needed to do.
In my client’s case, she is a high-achieving student who has fallen behind while she struggles with panic attacks. Doing the homework she is very capable of raises her anxiety in the short-term because she is confronted with the knowledge that she is behind. Her desire to be perfect also hinders her ability to start.
My procrastination was fueled by the anxiety I feel when I don’t know exactly what I want to write. I hate staring at a page when I am stuck! It makes me anxious and a bit insecure about the possibility of failure. Writing is fun for me, but uncertainty is not.
Procrastination isn’t a personality flaw or a time management issue, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt, and beyond. We procrastinate because our short-term need for mood repair outweighs our longer-term need to complete the task. This need is even more significant in adolescents whose emotions are less manageable. Many teens are using procrastination via distractions such as their phone and social media as a maladaptive way to ward off some of their unpleasant emotions.
I will openly admit that I have not found a cure for this behavior, as is evidenced by my recent procrastination as well as the difficulty therapists have assisting clients to eliminate the habit.
However, I do find a few approaches helpful for myself, and I encourage parents to apply them in handling their teens’ procrastination.
4 Ways To Help With Teen Procrastination
- Try to be mindful of what emotion your teen is avoiding instead of what task (s)he is avoiding. In that way, you can work together on soothing the emotion instead of either parent or child focusing on the “lazy” insult. (Related: This is What To Say And Do When Your Teen Is In A Funk)
- Explain to teens this important concept: while avoidance reduces the emotion in the short-term, it only increases it in the long term. That encourages them to confront the activity with the knowledge that they are saving themselves from longer-term discomfort.
- I am a huge fan of setting up small rewards as motivation. Plan a fun activity for when your teen is finished, and ackknowledge smaller steps on the way to completion with small rewards (I like a chocolate break). Encourage your teen to set up their own reward system.
- Most importantly, set smaller goals to allow a feeling of success. We are much more motivated to continue when we feel we have accomplished something. For example, I encouraged my client to set a goal of completing one math problem instead of telling herself she had to catch up completely. She knew she could do that and, therefore, avoid the anxiety without completely avoiding the task.
Teen procrastination is normal and not necessarily an indicator of a larger problem
Our teens will likely continue to procrastinate at times. We will, too. Yet everyone will make more progress in breaking the habit if we separate the act from the label “lazy.”
This is a contributed post by Alisa Crossfield. She is a Clinical Psychologist and mom to two teens. She shares these experiences in a personal blog entitled “Psychdiary” and a Psychology Today blog entitled “Emotionally Healthy Teens.“