The emotions behind procrastination: Seven ways to help kids avoid it
Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Picture it: A task looms in front of you. You want to do it. You know all the reasons why you should do it. And you have good intentions; you really mean to get it done. The next step is doing it. Then POOF! Procrastination takes over, your good intentions dissipate, and the task is left undone.
Sound familiar? This situation is all too common with kids. Faced with difficult schoolwork vs. an enjoyable activity, they’ll succumb to the fun. It’s human nature. Homeschoolers can have it harder because their house is full of enticing distractions: toys, dolls, videogames, the family cat or dog that begs for attention. How can you help your child get past procrastination? How can you prevent it from becoming a habit?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that procrastination does not equal laziness. Let me say that again: Procrastination is not a sign of laziness. Instead it’s a shield we wield to protect ourselves from negative emotions. We hoist it when we’re faced with fear of failure, impulsiveness, distractedness, denial, and rebellion, to name a few. Gustavo Razzetti, author of Stretch for Change, explains that procrastination results when “we fail to manage our emotions, not our time.”
People can be especially vulnerable to negative emotions like “criticism, failure, and their own perfectionism,” so using procrastination makes sense, notes Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit. Put yourself in your child’s shoes: Why start something if you think you’re likely to bomb it, which in turn could lower others’ view of you? Likewise, if a student believes she can’t do something “exactly right” or be the best at it, she may think less of herself and imagine everyone else does, too. So she puts off starting the task or tries to avoid it altogether.
Students also use this “emotion-coping strategy” when they think a task is meaningless, boring, or too difficult, says Timothy Pychyl, research psychologist at Carleton University, Canada. One of his senior honors students, Mariam Hanna, discovered people tend to be overly optimistic about the future. You tell yourself you’ll do it later, convinced you’ll be more motivated later. This seems logical and sounds good, and hence boosts your current mood, even if it’s not true. “I feel good now about my future intention, so I predict I’ll feel good in the future,” Pychyl explains.
Sometimes students simply feel overwhelmed by a project and don’t know where to begin. Research shows if an assignment is too vague, kids will procrastinate. Plus, children are often less aware of their emotions and more prone to act on them. It’s our job as parents to guide them toward instilling good habits.
Here are seven ways to help your child avoid using procrastination as a safeguard against negative emotions:
1. Teach your child to refresh her thinking. Instead of “I have to do this,” think:
· “I want to do this.”
· “I am free to choose, and I choose to do this.”
· “I wonder what will happen if…”
2. Rather than punishing your child, reward him for what he does accomplish.
3. Talk to your child about forgiving herself when she falls short. Such self-appreciation is vital to all aspects of life.
4. Think in smaller chunks. Make the first chunk so simple that your child is certain he can accomplish it. For example: “I will answer one science question.” “I will write the first sentence of my report in the next five minutes.” “I will read two pages.” Successfully starting the task can give your child the confidence he needs to tackle the next chunk and the next.
5. Be specific. Instead of “Do your chores,” say, “Empty the bathroom trashcans and put your Hot Wheels cars in the toy bin.”
6. Lead your child to visualize how good she’ll feel once the task is completed. Then have her imagine how agitated she’ll feel if she puts it off until later and wastes time now. Help her verbalize that she doesn’t want the outcome-of-not-doing-the-task more than she wants the short-term “relief” of procrastination.
7. Allow your child to experience the consequences of his choices. Don’t rescue him.