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How Can I Help My Procrastinating Tween?

By Joe Connolly, Consulting Educator

Question:

My son is an eighth-grader and a very smart boy (straight A student in all pre-AP courses) and quite ambitious, too. But he always procrastinates and most of the time goes to sleep very late at night (between 12 and 2 a.m.) and sometimes gets up early (between 4 and 5:30 a.m.) if he did not finish his homework at night (due to procrastination).

I keep on reminding him to start as soon as he can and have tried everything from helping with homework, to scheduling the task or helping him write the "to do lists " and organizing, yet nothing works. Sometimes I just ask him to take a nap because it's better to see him getting the rest that he needs rather than seeing him wasting time doing nothing. Most of the time he refuses a nap but will go anyway because he is really too exhausted and sleepy.

I've even talked to his school counselor about his procrastination problem and sleeping-late habit. And she said that based on what I told her, my son is a perfectionist! She said that I should try to set the latest time that he could do his homework and that if he didn't finish he will not be allowed to wake up early and finish his homework. I did it for a while but eventually I gave up because it's too stressful to battle every day.

Answer:

As I read your letter I was struck by two points you make. The first is that you have a son who is a straight A student who shows signs of ambition and perfectionism. The second is that you have a son who would prefer not to do his homework, will put off sleeping and sometimes procrastinates. It occurs to me that most parents would love to have the first son you described, yet many parents live with the realities of the second son you described.

My first piece of advice is to be thankful for the fact that, despite the issues you and your son seem to be having with his sleep and procrastination, he is still an ambitious, straight A student in pre-AP courses. It also appears that he is able to figure out how to get his homework done and get very good grades. That tells me he is not only smart, but also resourceful.

You are right to be concerned about his sleep, however. All teens need at least nine hours of sleep each night in order to function appropriately during the day. The reality is that many young people only get somewhere around six or seven hours. Some of this has to do with their incredibly busy schedules. Some of it is because of the way their brains work. There is evidence that a teen brain can get a "second wind" around 10:00 p.m. This "second wind," or "phase delay" as it is referred to in many publications, lasts for a few hours. Essentially the brain tells the teen that he is not tired between 10:00 and 12:00 p.m.

There are ways to manage this "second wind." Most of the solutions revolve around educating your son about the importance of sleep and its effect on his ability to function appropriately. Other steps to take are to help him stay away from computers and television lights late at night, and continue to urge him to take naps when necessary. You can also be aware of his schedule and be careful not to burden him with too many activities. If your son is a perfectionist, as the counselor describes, then it is possible that he has over-scheduled himself. If you feel the sleep situation is getting so bad that it is affecting his health, then you should see his pediatrician. Lastly, you can also model good sleeping habits.

It sounds as if you have done all the right things to help your son. You have suggested ways to change his behavior and you have seen the school counselor. The counselor offered you great advice. But it seems that you feel there is still a problem with the situation. My opinion is the problem may be with the way you have chosen to proceed with the expert advice given to you. Your last line was telling: "I did it for a while but eventually gave up..."

Parenting teenagers is a difficult task. Among other things it requires hard work, lots of love, knowing when and how to set boundaries and appropriate consequences when those boundaries are pushed. It also requires tenacity on the part of the parent. If we choose to look for shortcuts and easier ways to parent, we are likely to get the results one would expect from taking shortcuts. That is, less success and more failure.

Stick to your plan and follow through. It will help you to have another adult who can pick up the slack when you're feeling run down or beat up by the persistence it takes to do the right thing. Your son's father should be in step with your plan. Make sure you are both on the same page and following through with the consequences when necessary. If his father is not in the family picture, count on a friend who can offer moral support when you need it the most.

Your situation is not dire by any means. Be thankful for the wonderful straight A student you have and continue to help him make good choices about sleep and procrastination. In time you'll see the success you're both striving for.


Joe Connolly is the author and creator of 3 STEPS to parenting teens and the One Minute Rule. One of the founders of Good Parents, Inc., Joe is a sought after speaker of family topics and is widely known for his expertise and powerful speaking on parenting. Joe has been a featured speaker at Stanford University's "Stressed Out Students" conference, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, California State Senator Jackie Speier"s "Girls Day" and at corporations including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Genentech. Joe is the dean of students (K-5) at the Harker School in San Jose, CA. You can learn more about Joe and the services he provides at joeconnolly.org. Joe can be reached at joe@joeconnolly.org.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/28/2010:
"Well what a ray of hoe I really became the legal gaurdian of a 13 year newphew. A bright and gifted child getting him to stay motivated has been my most diffcult task. Thank you for this web site will vist many times in the coming year."
09/22/2010:
"My grandson is one that stays up late but then doesn't want to get up in the mornings. I have to keep on him to do homework or anything else. He is ADHD,ODD and 14 yrs old. He just can't keep on one task no matter what it is pertaining too. Any suggestions would be helpful."
07/19/2010:
"I have everything under control.. that's what my straight A daughter used to say until the whole hell broke looks right 10 days before AP exams.. she was panicking and not able to cope up with school work, AP exam prep, and Athletics all happening simultaneously. We had to get involved to calm her down, straighten her work load, prioritize stuff and ultimately micro-manage for a while her bed time schedules etc to get out of the situation. I do think the current students have too many things going on, and it's not fair to assume that they will be able to master organization, planning, multi-tasking skills on their own. So while I don't believe in micro-managing, I do think that it's very important to be involved to some extent to help them through esp. the tough junior and senior years. Don't be on extremes.. 0% (checking when the grade reports arrive in mail), or 100% (sitting every night to understand what's going on) try to be some where in middle. Instead of questioning them, or forcing them (a bed time etc), work with them together just like a friend by trying to develop a prioritized to-do list by each subject once a week. Ofcourse allow freedom to plan their schedule. Very important is to have visibility and mid-week progress review such that you can easily intervene if needed. So key is to maintain that delicate balance such that they will not feel threatened or stressed that you are going to takeover their lives, but you are there to offer help. "
09/8/2009:
"My teenage daughter does the exact same thing. She is in IBMYP which is similar to Pre-AP and stays up until 2 or 3am doing homework. She is a perfectionist and refuses to sleep if her homework remains unfinished. I found your advice to be helpful and it is gradually easing my daughter away from procrastination, thank you."
11/19/2008:
"I have a teen that does the same thing as this woman's son, stays up very late and gets little sleep. She is not a perfectionist, but is a procrastinator. She does't get straight A's, but does very well and takes mostly honors courses. The compromise we have come up with is allowing her to take a long nap in the afternoon after school. While this is not ideal, at least she is getting more rest. She is very productive later at night. Even when she doesn't have school assignments, she will be reading or doing art at midnight almost every night. Thank you for this story and response. "
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