Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom out there to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your great questions; keep them coming.)
Capable Kids Q&A: Procrastinating Teen Artist
Q: My 13-year-old has to submit a portfolio of artwork as part of an application process to a few arts-based high schools she wants to attend. A few of the submission pieces require a form of art she does not enjoy. She has continuously put off doing the work, and that’s causing her great anxiety.
Yet, when I ask about her schedule to get it done, she tells me she’s got it under control and not to bother her about it. Last weekend she stressed herself out so much, she spent the weekend in fits and tears, which both broke my heart and frustrated the hell out of me!! I want to leave it up to her to figure out how to get it all done … or not, and suffer the consequences, but I also know she’s 13 and needs guidance. So, what’s the right balance of letting her figure it out but also helping where I should?
A: We so often think procrastination is about laziness or disorganization—but, as I think you’ve already figured it with your daughter, it’s really about our emotions. In short, we often delay a task to feel better in the short-term, say the experts quoted in my favorite article ever about understanding procrastination. Even without the wrinkle of the less-desired art forms, the stakes are high. She has to complete and be evaluated on an application for something she really does want—admission to an arts high school. We can easily imagine the self-talk: Is my art good enough? What if I don’t get in? When you mention the application, it brings up all those uncomfortable emotions that she’d rather not feel. Naturally, she wants you to stop, because your well-intentioned inquiries are derailing her if-I-don’t-think-about-it-maybe-it-will-go-away procrastination plan.
So that’s what’s behind all this—but what to do about it?
Our goal as parents is to help kids manage their responsibilities independently, but we have to first meet them where they are. Where your daughter is right now is stressed-out. Here’s where you can start:
· If it feels right to you, apologize for inadvertently adding any pressure. At a quiet, peaceful time when she’s not keyed up about this application, reiterate that you don’t mean to be a nag—in my experience with teens, poking fun at myself for nagging can defuse some of the tension—and that you’re on her side and definitely not looking to add stress.
· Acknowledge that her feelings are perfectly normal. She’s completing a high-stakes application, and she may be worried about doing well on it. Stress and anxiety are normal, healthy responses that help us respond to demanding situations. Once we start stressing about our stress, though, we add a less-useful layer of anxiety, says Dr. Lisa Damour in Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. It’s OK that she feels stress about this application, and she doesn’t have to feel bad about that.
· Explain that procrastination is an understandable emotional response to the stress she’s feeling, and that, unfortunately, it can make things feel worse in the long run.
· Gently offer to help her brainstorm a plan. This is where you can start to hand the reins back to your daughter. “Like you said, you’ll get it done. I know that. But it’d be nice if there was a way to tackle it so it isn’t so stressful. You may be able to figure that out better for yourself—or would you rather brainstorm a plan together?” She may want the family out of the house for the afternoon—or she may want someone else across the table “co-working” on something on their own computer.
Once she’s sure you’re not trying to add to her stress, she may be better able to think through her needs and let you know how you can support her. One more thing: If you have a partner or spouse, consider which of you is the best suited to handle this situation. After 13 years, you can probably guess which parent your daughter will cut more slack—a reality which can change by the day at this age!
Good luck—can’t wait to hear how it goes.