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Understanding Procrastinating Children

Both children and adults can benefit from learning what motivates them.

As the deadline approaches to finish a school project, 14-year-old Julia has a melt-down, tearfully expressing that she is just too stressed and will fail. Julia typically gets things done near the cut-off point. Nevertheless, her grades are excellent. Julia's parents find themselves on edge whenever she announces an upcoming exam or a close due date for a significant assignment. Her parents, who tend to get things done ahead of schedule, respond with familiar frustration, eventually lecturing Julia: "This wouldn't be happening if you had started earlier."

Since task-driven (non-procrastinating) parents who get things done right away rarely trust their deadline-driven (procrastinating) children to get something done on time, conflicts within their relationship are common. Parents may worry that the child will fail, or they may dread their child's behavior when a deadline is looming. Meanwhile, the deadline-driven child may experience shame about a parent's lack of faith in their way of doing things or react negatively to a parent's advice or concerns.

Emotions motivate us, and anxiety is an engine that can drive us. Based on how our emotions become scripted or automated, we develop a motivational style—a way of getting things done—early in life. While task-driven people have anxiety about uncompleted tasks, deadline-driven procrastinators are motivated to get something done when a looming deadline activates negative emotions such as distress or fear. Successful deadline-driven children also learn to create absolute deadlines if no cut-off point exists. Like adult procrastinators, deadline-driven children do not procrastinate about everything, since emotions activated in certain situations may motivate early action.

Although Julia's response to deadline anxiety may appear as agitation, tearfulness, or as an expression of doom, her anxiety (distress and fear) motivates her to complete the task successfully. What could help Julia is not necessarily an earlier start but understanding the emotions she feels when a deadline is upon her. A helpful response on the part of Julia's parents could be something like, "You always get it done, and you always do a great job." Later, Julia's parents might have a talk with her about her deadline-driven style, noting that as she races the clock, the emotional energy that she perceives as stress is the same energy that helps her get something done.

Julia may not only be misunderstood by her parents but also by her peers. At school, deadline-driven children involved in group projects may appear as though they are not completing their part of the work. Since group members who are task-driven may complete their part of a project right away, they may perceive Julia’s deadline-driven style as negligent or they may resent her. After all, their grade as a group hinges on Julia’s performance.

However, recognizing stylistic differences in task completion could allow group members to strategize, organize, and find creative solutions to handling project completion. In fact, group projects in educational settings offer an ideal opportunity for teachers to point out differences in motivational styles, ways to discuss and navigate such variances, and help students understand that meeting a deadline and doing one’s best work is essential for present and future success. One solution to working with students who have different motivational styles would be to create markers or sub-deadlines for portions of a group project, rather than assigning only a final project deadline, as a means of being responsive to differences.

Both children and adults in their lives can benefit from understanding the source of what motivates them. Mistakenly, many parents, teachers, and even some psychological researchers believe only positive emotions healthily motivate children. Yet how many children have a motivational system that will trigger the feeling of excitement, for example, in response to a page of math problems? Only some children are motivated by anticipating feeling positive emotions that accompany pride in an accomplishment. Others are confused when they do not feel any positive emotion about a task that is before them, as though they are supposed to feel interested or excited. Often what motivates children to get something done, instead, involves the avoidance of negative emotions or the desire to relieve their effects. For example, where one child may eventually tackle a page of math problems to avoid the shame of failure, another may be motivated to get it done because she wants relief from her distress about the pending assignment. For deadline-driven children, racing the clock adds fuel to their motivation.

Many parents attempt to motivate their children or offset a negative emotional response to a task they must complete, by offering a later reward. Another tactic, a punitive one, involves taking away a privilege or an activity until the task has been done. Some children, however, may prefer to avoid the negative emotion associated with getting something done rather than endure what they have to do to gain a future reward or avoid punishment. Why not let children know that sometimes it’s just a relief to get something done, because that’s how negative emotions work: they simply motivate us to do something so we can avoid how they make us feel or to relieve their effects.

Three goals to keep in mind, which may influence success for both children who procrastinate and those who do not, are: 1) that work is completed before a deadline, even if it is minutes before the work is due; 2) that the work reflects one's best efforts; and, 3) developing an ability to learn when shame shines a spotlight on what could have been done better or differently.

(Excerpted in part from What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.

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