Ask the Experts

Q: “Should I Let My Teen Procrastinate?”

“Procrastination works for some students with ADHD. A looming deadline activates and jumpstarts their engines, making them uber-focused on completing their work and their creative juices flowing freely.”

Boy playing with VR while procrastinating homework
Boy playing with VR while procrastinating homework

Q: “I don’t understand why my 15-year-old with ADHD waits until the last minute to study for a test or write a paper. He says procrastination works for him, and he eventually gets his work done. He’s only bothered by me nagging him to start. Why does he procrastinate so much? Should I leave him alone?”— ProcrastinatingMom

Hi Procrastinating Mom,

As an ADHD student coach for teens and college students, I have worked with kids labeled “procrastinators” or called lazy, weak, and even stupid (I hate all those words!) for as long as they can remember. I routinely challenge those students’ parents — and the students themselves — to look at “procrastination” through a different lens.

Here’s the definition I use when coaching my student clients and their parents:

Procrastination is the act of putting something off or not doing something despite knowing that a negative consequence is likely to happen.

When we describe procrastination, we often leave off the second part of my definition — knowing a negative consequence is likely to happen.

Delaying something (particularly from someone else’s point of view) doesn’t necessarily make your son a procrastinator. Think about it: We all put off things occasionally; we say we’ll do it later; we don’t always finish what we start. When that happens, there’s often no horrible, earth-shattering, life-is-over consequence. This is important for students with ADHD to hear.

[Free Download: How to Focus (When Your Brain Says ‘No!’)]

Why Procrastination Works for ADHD Brains

Waiting until the last minute works for some students with ADHD and executive functioning challenges. A looming deadline activates and jumpstarts their engines, making them uber-focused on completing their work with their creative juices flowing freely.

Procrastination may be a hard pill to swallow for parents who get things done two weeks in advance (I’m like this.), but that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective or bad. When my son was younger, I had to remember that he worked best as a “last minute kind of guy,” and getting him to do things way in advance stunted his creativity and productivity. It made the work harder for him and the tension in our house harder for me. (I’m not proud.)

I constantly hear from my students that they feel powerless and want control over their time and tasks. In other words, they want agency as to when and how they accomplish their work. Remember, getting motivated to do what someone else determines is important or timely is truly difficult for all of us — even more so if that structure clearly doesn’t work for you.

A Different View of Procrastination

Let me share one story to illustrate my point.

Many years ago, I was parent coaching a mom of a 16-year-old, who shared with me a conversation she had with her son that changed her mindset and how she viewed her son’s “perceived procrastination.”

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD?]

It was Thursday afternoon, and he had a short paper due by Monday at 11:59 p.m. He didn’t feel the urgency to work on it during the weekday, although he had free afternoons. He was planning to write it on Sunday morning. It was his only assignment that weekend, and he liked knowing his deadline loomed close. The paper didn’t require research, just reflection, and he was confident that this plan worked best for him. His mom voiced her frustration repeatedly as he tried to explain his thought process. After a bit of back and forth, her son quietly said, “You can yell at me all you want at midnight on Monday if my paper isn’t done. But not a minute before.”

Quite powerful, no?

Here’s my advice: Allow your son to trust his instincts. Give him the choice and control to make his own decisions and let him lead the way. You’ll know — and he’ll know — if it’s the right path.

Good luck!

Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

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