My eleven-year-old is the worst procrastinator in the world. I have to threaten to ground him to get him to do things he doesn't want to do. What can I do to change this bad habit of his?
Sick of waiting
Dear Mom, As adults, we know that procrastinating creates problems in every aspect of our life. Not only can it impact our success in education and work, but it generates conflict with those we love when they feel they can't depend on us to follow through with committments. Because of their tendency to put off till tomorrow what would best be done today, procrastinators often rely on others -- parents, teachers, or bosses -- to "light a fire" for them, using threats or bribes to override the inertia that sets in around doing unpleasant tasks. But of course this is a very unhealthy dynamic, leading to frustration and resentment for everyone involved. While it's understandable that your son -- like all kids -- prefers having fun over doing things he doesn't enjoy, it's important to help youngsters develop the skills they'll need to do well in life, and this includes teaching them ways to manage their resistance to doing tasks they just don't feel like doing. Here's my advice:
- Avoid coming across as needy. Kids can "smell" our agenda, and when they sense that we need them to do something, it often triggers their Inner Rebel. Saying, "It's time to feed the dog," rather than, "I need you to feed the dog" is a small adjustment that can make a big difference.
- Avoid coming across as harsh and judgmental. Kids put their guard up when they sense that we're being critical, especially if their pattern of procrastination stems from legitimate challenges with staying organized and on task. (See #3.)
- Many of the most creative, intelligent people I know lean toward procrastination when the task at hand is mundane. (I've been there too.) We know we're messing up when we find ourselves dragging our heels to do anything that's challenging for our right-brain style. We're far better served by learning techniques for managing life's dull duties than being scolded for not leaping at the opportunity to do them.
- Acknowledge how much you understand. You know your son prefers to put things off until the last minute. So, tell him you have decided that the two of you are going to have to come up with a different approach. Explain that you're no longer willing to have the same old arguments about homework and chores, with all the yelling and drama. Invite him to problem solve with you to generate other options for tackling the things he consistently avoids taking care of. I like the mindmapping program "Inspiration" (or "Kidspiration") for brainstorming ideas with kids.
- Teach your son how to "chunk down" tasks into bite-sized, more manageable ones. Many of us procrastinate because we think that once we start in on something that isn't enjoyable, we'll be stuck doing it for hours. Teach him the Ten Minute Rule, whereby he just works on his math or rakes the yard for 10 minutes, and then gets to decide whether to finish the job or take a pause. Many kids will start a task -- and proceed to completion -- if they know there's light at the end of the tunnel.
- Suggest that your son create a list of tasks he's responsible for completing each day. Then, rank each item according to how difficult he thinks it will be and how long he thinks it will take. When he's completed a task, have him record how hard it actually was, and how long it actually took. This exercise can be a real eye-opener for procrastinators, who often put things off because they think the job will take longer or be more difficult than it is in practice.
Yours in parenting support,
Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.