McNerney: Dealing with the Procrastinator

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

A reader asks: “I have a daughter that has become the ultimate procrastinator. She will wait until the last minute to get her assignments done. This causes lots of stress and last-minute worry … especially with me! How can I help her become less of a procrastinator so that things are easier for both of us?”

Procrastination is something that most families deal with, since there is usually at least one child who likes to wait until the last minute on projects and studying for tests. 

First, the good news: Recently, a large study was conducted analyzing the traits of successful college students. Some of the expected traits were high on the list, such as intelligence and hard work, but there was one trait the caught the researchers by surprise: procrastination. One of the top five traits that most successful college students identified about themselves is that they were procrastinators. One interpretation of this could be that procrastinators learn a very important skill—the ability to work well under pressure.

This assumes, of course, that the procrastination is managed well. If it is not managed well, it will cause more difficulties and missed/late assignments and extra stress for the whole family.

Another characteristic of procrastinators is that they are very optimistic. They think that they will have plenty of time to finish things and nothing will get in the way. A sure sign of a natural born procrastinator is one that tells you he will get up an hour early and study since he will be well rested at that point. Especially with teens, this almost never happens. He is not going to be well rested and ready for studying at 5:30 in the morning. We, as adults, understand this. The overly optimistic procrastinator does not.

Now for the bad news: We, as parents, can only be somewhat successful in reducing our children’s tendency to procrastinate. Some children are natural born procrastinators who will have to deal with this issue into their adult years. We cannot eliminate this tendency. If we try to eliminate procrastination with those kids who are natural procrastinators, we tend to end up over-punishing (with little effect) and cause more stress and tension instead of reducing the procrastination.

Does this mean we should do nothing? Absolutely not. If you have read my previous columns, you might recall that an important thing we can do for our children is to teach them about life: if you do well, good things tend to happen; if you don’t do well, bad things tend to happen. Our job is to produce a microcosm of life so that they can learn these lessons now.


1. Ask questions instead of giving advice. When we tell our children how it should be done, most kids will resist. This is natural. But when we ask them questions about their plan, it increases the likelihood that that they will become better planners. Here are some good questions to ask: What is your plan? When is it due? When do you plan on working on it? How much time will it take? Is that enough time? 

By asking the right questions, we are getting our children to think about planning enough time for the project, which is an important skill for them to learn.

2. Set an artificial deadline. Successful students will often set an artificial deadline a few days before the actual deadline so that if some unexpected event occurs, they will have a few days to recover. But most natural born procrastinators won’t naturally do this. We have to do it for them. So if a project is due on Monday, we could set the deadline for Friday.

Then you can reward them if they met the deadline. I think rewards work much better than punishments when it comes to dealing with procrastination. Rewards don’t have to be extravagant; they just have to be effective. For example: “If you finish the project by Friday afternoon, you can go to your friend’s house on Friday evening. If you don’t finish it, you’ll have to stay home with us.”

It is fine to use those things that our children would automatically get and, instead, make them earn it. This is how life works, doesn’t it?

3. For long term projects, set two or three interim deadlines. By setting more than one deadline, your child won’t get stuck with ten hours of work and only two days to get it done. Most projects have natural spots to set deadlines. Use these as interim deadlines and set up rewards for meeting each deadline.

Using these three ideas will help decrease the tendency of procrastination. But remember: For many kids it won’t eliminate it. For more information about helping our kids become more successful, read my book: “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!”

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

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