Parenting Procrastinators

At times, the last thing any of us want to think about are the grades that come at the end of the school year. Maybe last year wasn’t so successful for your teen, and you are dreading a repeat performance. Maybe your teen struggled in a subject or two, or had difficulty engaging with a certain teacher. While last year is definitely old news and students deserve a fresh start, keeping potential pitfalls in mind as the school year progresses can position parents to be a positive force in a youth’s academic achievement early on.

Student academic performance in the fall significantly impacts spring semester outcomes, and by the time the low grades show up, your child may already be in trouble. Parents might want to stay alert to shortfalls within their teen’s academic performance before the problems become entrenched.

Parents often, rightly, feel that their teen should manage his or her own school performance. By and large, this is a healthy approach. But some kids are simply not ready for full academic ownership. They may not possess the necessary maturity or motivational and organizational skills. (Check out Back to School: Homework Help) for ideas on how to help a teen build these skills.) Others may generally perform well but struggle with a particular subject or teacher. Parents will benefit from recognizing student trouble from the outset, as inexperienced teens may not be aware of their own challenges until they are drowning in them.

Another major challenge for parents and students alike is procrastination.

Although research shows that during the fall semester college student procrastinators are happier and less stressed than students who do not procrastinate, the roles are reversed in the spring. By spring the hard-workers are enjoying the fruits of their ongoing efforts, while the procrastinators fall into panic mode. The procrastinators have traded the “now” for the “later.” Adolescents are particularly at risk for procrastination since their brain development is still in a state of “in-the-moment” thinking that constantly seeks out immediate, high-reward behaviors at the expense of longer-term goals.

Procrastination is a form of cognitive dissonance whereby we rationalize our current state of inaction by convincing ourselves we’ll be able to deal with it later. Procrastination operates through a disconnect between the present and the future. It consists of “giving in” to the immediate wants of the present at the expense of our obligations to the future. It masquerades as a rational process: “Why do now what I can do later?” Or the classic, “I work best under pressure.”

Procrastinators don’t just defer their work until later, they actually defer the worry itself, hence the happier first semester procrastinators. They are able to put off the worry by relying on the self-delusion that they will still have time to do it later. The fall semester happy procrastinators are happy not because they don’t know that putting off their responsibilities will lead to harm, but because the procrastination protects them from being anxious over it. Eventually, the responsibilities catch up, and the worries can no longer be avoided and deferred.

What can parents do to help their teens avoid procrastination?

Your child is not intentionally trying to make him or herself — or you — miserable. Teens are simply driven to avoid tasks they find aversive. Students know when they are procrastinating. They know the punishments that procrastination will bring. (However, those rewards and punishments are remote to the present moment since those punishments won’t come until grades are returned later on.) What they don’t realize is why they are procrastinating.

Parents may help their children overcome the temptations and consequences of delay through a regular process of awareness, goal setting, and reflection.


Keep in mind that procrastination is an emotional response not a rational decision. When students come to recognize their own procrastination, they will see that putting things off until later is merely short-term relief of the anxiety of an aversive task. Now their emotional responses to tasks that are “boring,” irrelevant,” or “too difficult,” become not an excuse to defer and delay but a flag for attention and help.

Work together to set up a realistic schedule. Having a written agenda of assignments and commitments can help teens see their responsibilities within a larger picture. Putting off one assignment may seem like no big deal, but when you know that next week you will have swim practice every evening and another paper due, it may “make sense” to take care of it this week when you have more free time. Parents and teens can create a calendar together that has a teens’ schedule on it and due dates for different assignments. When using electronic calendars, reminders can be set a week or a few days in advance. Not only is this great for more visual or hands on learners, but having something concrete to mark off when finishing a task can provide a sense of accomplishment for youth.

Goal Setting

Encourage structured breaks. Taking a break can rejuvenate focus and attention, but it can also become an excuse for not finishing. Encourage your teen to “structure” his or her breaks so that they are planned ahead of time. This creates short-term goals that are easily accomplished, and the breaks become appropriate rewards for getting work done and not a trigger for more procrastination. Some students will wish to get the easier work done first, take a break, then try the more difficult work. Instead, try asking your teen to start the difficult work before taking a break, so that the break is not a reward for the easy work and is instead a reward for forward progress on the more difficult assignments.

 Help your teen set SMART goals to get work done on time.  Since procrastination is essentially a barrier between long-term goals and short-term decisions, the more students reflect upon their long term goals, the more likely they are to act on them now. Speak to your teen about his or her workflow and design SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

Rather than telling students to get “all their work done on time,” talk about the process they have for completing assignments. Can they sit for hours at a time and work? How do they manage their breaks? Will they need time to have assignments proof-read and edited? Asking such questions can lead to discussions on planning specific time to work. For example, a teen may decide to spend 30 minutes on each subject for assigned work each evening or that big projects should be completed at least 3 days before the due date to provide “flex” time to make changes or ask for help. Big projects can be broken up into weekly tasks or have entire days set aside, given your teen’s work style. Helping teens think about how they work best will provide them with achievable goals to work towards and help them to learn what it takes for accomplishment and how great it feels.

Getting Help to Get Started

Students frequently imagine that their work is too much or too difficult, and that becomes its own excuse not to do it. Instead, encourage your student to “just get started,” even if that means simply opening a book or, better, asking a question about it. Seeking help is an excellent start on a difficult assignment, and once students start the process of thinking it over, they will have already started it. Similarly, some parents find that the “Five Minute Rule” is an effective tool to engage students in course work. If they commit to trying it for five minutes, the aversions and anxiety will be reduced, and they will find that the work isn’t so bad, after all.

Offer organizational tools

Some teens just do not seem to possess the necessary organizational skills to complete work thoroughly and in a timely fashion. Most young people will acquire these skills eventually with maturity or develop coping mechanisms to compensate. In the interim parents can help by offering strategies and tools to support organization.

  • Keep a stock of school supplies on hand. Anticipate the tools your child might need for homework and keep them handy so that your child cannot put off doing assignments because of a forgotten protractor or for not having any colored paper.
  • Encourage your teen to make “to do” lists and to create and manage a working calendar
    Teens often lead extremely busy lives. They need to understand that it is simply not realistic for them to expect themselves to stay on top of everything without reminders.
  • Take advantage of the technological resources that your school has to offer. Many schools offer websites and text alerts or tweets in an effort keep both students and parents informed about assignments. This may enable you to do a little subtle prodding of your teen before things get out of hand.

Procrastination is a challenge that is not limited to teens. Parents sometimes struggle themselves. We all have certain aspects of our lives that we like to put off. However, the teen and early adult years are an essential time for young people to learn to distinguish between procrastination and prioritization and to learn to manage workflow and priorities without derailing their lives. Many of the approaches parents can use to help their teens manage their time are also ones that can be modeled (e.g., a “family” calendar that has everyone’s activities on it that hangs in a common space). This way, teens see that time management is something that will be an ongoing skill that they will use for the rest of their lives. If your teen is a procrastinator, he or she is likely going through this learning process. Positive parental support, time and structure can help uplift teens as they develop the maturity to deal with procrastination.


Article by Michael Bromley

Michael Bromley is founder and president of the A+ Club from LLC. As a high school teacher, parent of two children, author, and entrepreneur, Michael wants to bring out the best in all students and help them and their parents achieve their goals and dreams. Like many of us, Michael has suffered from procrastination – and he knows that it can be overcome and that true empowerment is within us all.

To learn more about procrastination and solutions for it, visit The Procrastination Research Group or The Student Success Blog.