The Power in Procrastination
By Brittany Alley, MA, LPCC
Most of us, to some degree, have put ourselves in the position where we are completing a deadline at the last minute. If you are a parent, it may feel challenging to know how to handle your child’s procrastination. It could be a paper or presentation, an important phone call, attending a social event, or doing chores around the house. What happens in those final moments of rapid preparation for your child? Do they thrive under pressure, or do they engage in negative self-talk? Does your child want to give up before trying? Maybe they avoid the task for so long that they become labeled by themselves or others as lazy. What underlying information does procrastination provide us?
Children at times, can of course put off responsibilities because they simply don’t want to do the task at hand. However, once we can understand that procrastination may be a symptom of discomfort, we can then begin to look at your child’s underlying challenge in their behavior.
It is also important to note that as with most things, there is a flip side. Procrastination may also be a necessary component to their creative process. It also provides a window into children’s learning styles and preferences. Below are a few take-aways to help us understand why children may procrastinate.
1.Procrastination is an Avoidance/Distraction When your child is stalling on an activity or project such as a class presentation or going to their sports game, begin to ask yourself what underlying emotion your child may be attempting to avoid.
If they don’t fully understand the chore or the homework assignment or have the belief that they’re unable to do it good enough, children will most likely not want to engage. This is also true if kids don’t have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.
When children link their self-worth to how good they are at producing something, they may set themselves up to feel inadequate. Wanting to perfect the current project can cause kids to want to put it off so that they don’t have to deal with the disappointment of not living up to their own expectations, or the perceived expectations of someone else.
2. Procrastination May Be an Intolerance to Feeling Big Emotions
Do you notice any of these thoughts, feelings, or sensations that may be experienced for yourself or your child when they procrastinate?
Anxious/Scared/High energy Depressed/Sad/Low energy Defiant, bossy, asking questions, not focused Screaming, anger, aggression, impulsive Negative Self Talk (i.e. not good enough) Desire to give up before trying Whining Bored
Rapid mood swings Confusion Resistance Lack of self-confidence Perfectionism
Somatic sensations such as stomach in knots, Tight throat, heavy chest, sweaty palms
When the threshold to feeling big emotions such as sad/mad/scared is smaller, any activity or stimuli that ignites these feelings may become intolerable for your child and can be difficult to express.
We know that procrastination may be an avoidance to feeling sad/mad/scared. When there is an avoidance, most often it is a direct result of a lower window of tolerance to that emotion. If mad/sad/scared is intolerable, it becomes difficult for children to trust that they can handle their big feelings and still be okay. This results in the above listed symptoms of discomfort.
Their inner dialogue may be saying that they can’t do it good enough, or that there is something wrong with them if they are struggling to complete, etc.
For example, finishing a few problems on a math sheet may seem like quick and easy work to us. But if it is a big deal for them, and they fear doing it poorly, completing the assignment becomes increasingly difficult. It is much easier to avoid feeling sad/mad/scared than it is to actually move towards and process the emotion. This is a great time for your child to seek support in building awareness, increasing emotional tolerance, and moving towards their perceived challenge with the goal of overcoming and trusting that they can handle the avoided task.
3. Learning Preference Does Not Align with Others’ Beliefs or Expectations Some individuals thrive under pressure. Creativity is most accessible when racing against a time restraint. Although this may be a frustrating behavior to witness, it is important to note the child’s relationship with the behavior.
Some children are also under stimulated. The project may be boring to them, which then provides little passion or motivation. They may be labeled as lazy or not engaged. However, they are most often acting out as a result of boredom and under stimulation, not defiance. Once we understand this as parents, teachers, and caregivers, we can explore new ways to spark their creativity.
There is also a high level of perfectionism with children, especially those labeled as gifted. This comes with being self-critical and having high expectations. This leads to high frustration when they do not get something correct. If gifted children appear inattentive, it may be a sign to adjust their learning structure in a way that increases their willingness to engage.
4. Assessing Values Children and adolescents will absolutely want to put off work when there is something better to do (and who can blame them?) Validate your child’s values so that they are aware you are understanding them. Model to them that they can handle sad/mad/scared. This may increase their ability and willingness to trust that they will be able to do their fun activity after their chores or homework. Being aware of your child’s needs in transition from school to home can also help. It is common for children and teens to need some down time after school. Try to create a schedule that allows for personal time and acknowledges the values of you and your child. Consistency and practice are keys to success!
All in all, the benefit of procrastination is that it provides great insight to your child’s inner world experience. Their underlying challenge is presented, and with awareness, the tolerance to feel the emotions and move towards the difficulty is increased. This cultivates resiliency, self-esteem, accomplishment, and awareness. It allows us to become mindful of areas in which we need to grow, and skills that we can increase. Procrastination also has creative benefits and allows us to recognize the ways in which we choose to learn and operate.
**The Bridge Center for Play Therapy is an excellent resource for parents and children. Our goal in play therapy is to identify and move towards the child’s perceived challenge. From there, children will build awareness and increase emotional tolerance. They will also learn new self-soothing strategies to cope, rather than avoid. As a result, frustrating and disruptive behaviors often decrease, and the willingness to try new things and build self-confidence can increase.