When is a child’s procrastination simply a “kid being a kid” or rooted within a deeper issue? Dr. Mary Tsonis of the Your Psychology Clinic in Laval explains that 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. They delay making payments and many of their responsibilities at work and at home, which often leads them to huge problems such as not being able to keep a steady job, not getting that promotion, or ruining their credit score. If this is the case for 20% of today’s adults and some non-chronic procrastinators, then why are we so hard on our children? When does procrastination become a matter worthy of professional help?

There are many reasons why a child might delay tasks such as school work or chores. “Procrastination is often an avoidance response that provides individuals with temporary relief. People who frequently procrastinate tend to focus on the immediate pleasure that the avoidance brings,” says Dr. Tsonis. Some might feel as though they are lacking the necessary skills to begin or complete tasks perfectly, they might not be motivated, or they might be putting them off due to a deeper underlying issue such as a learning disability. “Sometimes a child is confused about what is being asked and the problem is not that the child is rebelling or not interested, but that he or she just doesn’t know what is being asked,” Dr. Tsonis explains.

Parents do not usually consult with Dr. Tsonis solely for procrastination issues. “Procrastination is usually part of a bigger problematic picture. However, there are a lot of kids out there who procrastinate and don’t need to seek help,” says Dr. Tsonis. Children normally think in the moment and are not concerned about the long-term consequences of what they are doing or not doing. She recommends rewarding your child for completing a task. Sometimes giving children small incentives can provide them the immediate gratification they require to complete a task.

Just as we, as adults, work to earn a salary, children also need incentives to do certain things. No one does something for nothing—not even children! A child is not thinking about cleaning his room so that tomorrow it will be clean when Tommy comes over to play, nor is he thinking about starting his science project on Friday evening so that on Saturday he can go outside to play. Parents must explain these things to their children so that they learn how to think about their future, the consequences of their actions, so that they might develop good habits, not simply “do it because mommy said so”.

Dr. Tsonis reminds parents that they shouldn’t assume their children are procrastinating because they simply “don’t feel like it” or “they just don’t want to listen”. Sometimes, the task at hand, even a simple chore like cleaning up their bedroom, can be daunting for a child. Does he start by the bed, closet, desk covered with books and papers, or the clothes all over the floor?

Another example is a direction such as “go work on your project”, which can also be overwhelming to a child because there are so many places to begin: research, pictures, written work, poster, etc. “You have experience, but don’t assume that your child knows what is involved or where to begin,” says Dr. Tsonis. She recommends breaking up the task into multiple, more manageable parts that will be easier for a child to undertake on his or her own. What can also help the child is setting a timeline for when to do each of these “parts”. If the project is due in a month’s time, then working on one or two tasks per weekend can be less intimidating and overwhelming.

Like adults, children can also have perfectionist traits, what we sometimes refer to as the “Type A” personality, which can influence a child to procrastinate. On the other hand, perfectionism can also be modelled in a child’s environment. “Behind perfectionism is usually anxiety or low self-confidence, but perfectionism can also be modelled by parents or developed through the expectations that parents communicate,” explains Dr. Tsonis. Perfectionism, therefore, is not always positive since the constant need to complete tasks to perfection can paralyze a child from even starting a project or task.

Studies have shown that the children of authoritative parents are more likely to be chronic procrastinators as adults. “I often see parents consulting because of a power struggle in which the children are trying to get some form of power in the relationship via rebellion,” says Dr. Tsonis. In these cases, she will usually examine the parents’ tone, expectations, whether they are leaving enough room for children to learn self-regulation, and whether they dictate without supporting the learning of their child.

Dr. Tsonis says that when parents are concerned that procrastination might be negatively impacting their child’s life or future, she usually recommends beginning with some parent coaching. “This allows parents to learn practical skills that will help them deal with the problem on their own and various steps they can take with their child,” says Dr. Tsonis.

Remember that you know your child best and are in the best position to judge whether your child’s procrastination is just a passing phase or could be the symptom of something more serious. If your child’s procrastination is permeating into every aspect of his or her life, such as at school, at home, and with friends, and you feel that some professional advice would be worthwhile, then you should consult with a therapist or psychologist.

As parents, we can sometimes become very worried about small bumps in the road because we want the best for our children, but we also need to let them learn to pick themselves up when they fall and how to stand on their own two feet. Perhaps procrastinating may have gotten Jimmy a C on his last project, but it might have also taught him a greater lesson that he wouldn’t have otherwise learned.