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The Teenage Procrastination Roller Coaster

Fan of Roller Coasters? Me, Neither.

I have had two conversations this week with truly awesome parents of clients of mine who were both wondering the same question: How do I help my teenager get off the procrastination rollercoaster without getting on it with him?  If you’re familiar with this particular rollercoaster, you know it goes something like this: kid procrastinates and doesn’t get stuff done, parent gets an email or report that shows missing work that is putting grade in failing territory and lays down stiff consequences, kid goes into work production tizzy to get it all in, often with parents along for the ride to help print, scan, edit or quiz them in the hail mary attempt, grade comes back up and everyone signs a relief until the cycle starts again.  

Anyway, I was so inspired by the conversations and what the parents came up with. It was too good to keep to myself. A lot of my help in the conversation came from the two books by William Strixrud and Ned Johnson here and here. For a great preview, you can also listen to them on the Tilt Parenting Podcast here.  

One important thing to note is that the clients I am discussing both have ADHD and come up against internal conflict between the way they want to be and their lack of confidence in their ability to live up to it. The anxiety this creates presents itself as procrastination. It’s a fight or flight response when they are faced with certain tasks or behavior that require a lot of pre-frontal cortex action, especially in the afternoons. Both in our sessions and in therapy, they work on reprogramming self-talk and self-awareness so they can develop skills to compensate. I think that’s a critical part of the plan.  After discussing this pattern, we came up with an experiment to shift the worry from the parents so that the responsibility and control can be put back on the teenager.

The less control a person feels over their life creates more anxiety. For the next 3 weeks, the parents are going to try the following. 

Saying: I know how you do in your school is your responsibility and I believe in your ability to be in control of it. We are going to do an experiment for the next 3 weeks to act like it as well.  

Doing: We will listen to you if you want to talk to us about something happening at school. We will offer advice and help if you ask for it. So we can back off, you will show us the school’s grading system and assignments once a week and explaining what you see there, your plans to handle any issues, and if/when you could use our help in some way. We will only sit and listen calmly and with presence and offer help if you ask. (Both students have worked with me to understand how to look at their grades as information to use for planning and strategizing). So that we can be good co-regulators for you, we will take steps to manage our own stress and anxiety that will come up for us when we give up some control and try something new. We might go for walks when we’re tempted to intervene on a choice we’re seeing you make or practice slow breathing while listen calmly and mindfully to you.  

Not Doing: For the next 3 weeks, we will not impose consequences for missing work, unless you request that we put a limit on something to help you focus. We will not ask you questions about your homework or your grades. We won’t check the school’s Learning Management System to look at grades and missing work outside of our weekly meeting with you. In fact, these parents even decided to remove the app from their devices. We will not let ourselves feel more worry than you about problems that are not ours to learn from. We love you too much to take that experience from you.  

Feeling: Faith in your ability to solve problems, ask for help when you need it, and make choices to make your life a healthy and happy one. A lot more energy to put into our happiness when we’re not worrying on your behalf. More connection in our relationships because we won’t be fighting over school so much.  

Asking themselves: Whose responsibility is this? Whose problem is this to learn from?

 If this helps you or someone you know, forward this on and be sure you’re signed up for my 3 Good Things Newsletter that comes out (almost) every week to share what helpful tools, strategies, and mindsets is helping my work with students and their roller coaster weary adults.

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