Why Does My Teen Procrastinate?

It's probably not due to laziness.

Posted Jun 25, 2020

Clker-Free-Vector Images/Pixabay
Source: Clker-Free-Vector Images/Pixabay

I was sitting on my couch recently, staring at my phone with my computer open on my lap. A text popped up from a teenaged client struggling with anxiety. She wrote something to the effect of, “How do I make myself do my homework? I know I need to, but I am just too lazy.”

Part of me wanted to laugh since the reason I was staring at my phone was that I, too, was procrastinating. I wanted to be working on an article I was in the middle of writing, but I couldn’t quite motivate myself to open the document. My phone was much easier.

I don’t think there is a person out there who hasn’t found themselves procrastinating at some point. I am a particular fan of what I have termed “productive procrastination.” That is when I do something productive like organizing my linen closet instead of doing the more pressing, time-sensitive task I am avoiding. I rationalize that the productive task needs to be done, but the truth is, it really doesn’t. 

Procrastination is not an easy habit to break. Calling yourself lazy actually makes it harder to break. The task is made even more difficult when teenagers hear adult voices calling them lazy. In general, insulting ourselves and others reduces motivation rather than increases it. In the case of procrastination, it is also an inaccurate insult. Procrastination is rarely a problem of laziness. It is actually a problem related to emotion regulation.

We put things off because it is difficult to tolerate a feeling that the activity elicits. In my case and my client’s, we were procrastinating in order to avoid the anxiety evoked by what we needed to do. 

In my client’s case, she is a high-achieving student who has fallen behind while she struggles with panic attacks. Doing homework (which she is very capable of) raises her anxiety in the short-term because she is confronted with the knowledge that she is behind.

My procrastination was fueled by the anxiety I feel when I don’t know exactly what I want to write. I hate staring at a page when I'm stuck! It makes me anxious and a bit insecure about the possibility of failure. Writing is fun for me, but uncertainty is not.

Procrastination isn’t a personality flaw or a time-management issue. It's a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt, and more. We procrastinate because our short-term need for a better mood outweighs our long-term need to complete the task. This need is even greater in adolescents whose emotions are less manageable. Many teens use procrastination as a maladaptive way to ward off unpleasant emotions.

I will openly admit that I have not found a cure for this behavior, as evidenced by my recent procrastination as well as the difficulty therapists have assisting clients to eliminate the habit. However, I do find a few approaches helpful for myself, and I encourage parents to apply them in handling their teens’ procrastination.

  1. Try to mindful of what emotion your teen is avoiding instead of what task he or she is avoiding. In that way, you can work together on soothing the emotion instead of either parent or child focusing on the “lazy” insult. 
  2. Explain to teens the fact that avoidance reduces the emotion in the short-term but only increases it in the long term. That encourages them to confront the activity with the knowledge that they are saving themselves from longer-term discomfort.
  3. I am a huge fan of setting up small rewards as motivation. Plan a fun activity for when your teen is finished, and reward smaller steps on the way to completion with small rewards (I like a chocolate break). Encourage your teen to set up their own rewards.
  4. Most importantly, set smaller goals to allow a feeling of success. We are much more motivated to continue when we feel we have accomplished something. For example, I encouraged my client to set a goal of completing one math problem instead of telling herself she had to completely catch up. She knew she could do that and could, therefore, avoid the anxiety without avoiding the task completely.

Our teens will likely continue to procrastinate at times. We will too. Yet everyone will make more progress in breaking the habit if we separate the act from the label of “lazy.”