From the February 2019 issue

Programmed to Stall: Why Do Teens Procrastinate?

Picking up steam in their tweens, adolescents seem to innately put things off, causing stress for all. Why do teens procrastinate, and what can parents do?

Why do teens procrastinate?

Whether it’s chores or homework, tweens and teens are experts at delaying the inevitable. Why do teens procrastinate? The good news is can be perfectly normal to a degree. But, unchecked, it’s not a great habit.

And when procrastination carries into adulthood, it can lead to negative long-term outcomes for the child, experts say. So, while it comes with the turf, it’s important to address the issue when it starts.

“I think it can be a concern for parents of kids of any age, but at the same time, we as parents don’t expect as much from kids at younger ages,” says Dr. Lori Warner, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Human Development and Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s Center in Southfield.

“I feel like later elementary and middle school is when it starts to become more problematic, and certainly in high school.”

Why the waiting?

There are a few different factors fueling all this punting, and those culprits can vary from child to child.

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“I feel the main causes are developmental, in the sense that we have brain development that is not at the adult level yet,” Warner says. “Cognitive function, planning, prioritizing, organization – those skills are not developed yet.”

So why do teens procrastinate, more specifically? Anxiety, perfectionism, resentment or rebellion can also be factors.

“We’re now really expecting more of them academically and socially, and they’re starting to experience more freedoms – and, at the same time, we as parents are frustrated because they want all these freedoms but are not able or willing to … have those skills,” she says. “Teenagers can’t think (things) through like we can as adults. It takes time.”

Since there are different reasons for procrastination, it’s important to address each child individually.

How to correct it

The best way is to find the cause in a calm way, Warner says. Ask questions with neutral curiosity.

“What does that teen say about what’s happening? Talking about it in a way that’s calm and understanding” helps, she says. “Then you can really try to figure out what’s behind this.”

Kids, as well as adults, can also have a problem with distractibility from the constant ping of devices. For others, it can be a matter of time management. Both issues can be addressed with parents’ guidance.

Plus, a “finished” project, such as a paper or a chore, may look different to you. “We can have ideas in our minds of what a completed task is, and it’s different for everyone,” she says. “My version of emptying the dishwasher or cleaning a room can be very different if I don’t break it down and spell it out.”

She also suggests timers to keep students on track. This can help kids understand the benefits of working ahead and making a timeline.

Building resilience

If the cause of a teen’s procrastination is anxiety or perfectionism, parents may need a different approach.

“The cycle of what happens with perfectionism and anxiety is that we invest so much meaning into the finished product that we have a very hard time submitting something that may be imperfect,” Warner explains.

Sometimes a task may be so overwhelming that students push it off until it has to be done, and then it is not up to their original standards.

“As parents we really have to build that resilience – just get started, put anything on the paper,” she suggests. “It’s like you’re a potter, and you’re throwing a lump of clay onto the potter’s wheel. It’s going to be a mess at first, but if you never put it there, you’ll never make a beautiful pot.”

Sometimes, natural consequences will help a teen learn for themselves.

“I think that as parents, we have to let our children fail. Help them understand: ‘You crammed and your grade wasn’t so good,'” she says. “Actions have consequences.”

It can be frustrating, Warner says, but “the biggest thing is just to work as a team at this kind of thing.”

Illustration by Brett Mosser

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