Kids Confused? Help Them Go from Perplexity to Purpose

Kids Confused? Help Them Go from Perplexity to Purpose

Education September 17, 2018 / By Joanne Foster, EdD
Kids Confused? Help Them Go from Perplexity to Purpose

Here are 10 sure-fire suggestions—plus resources—to help kids deal effectively with confusion.

Everyone has experienced confusion at some point. It can affect productivity, confidence, well-being, and creativity. Over time, as kids get older and there are more places to go and more to do, life often becomes a big whirlwind of activity and increasing responsibility. Things can get confusing and overwhelming pretty quickly. This is true for adults, too. Even Einstein recognized this. He said, “I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.” Eventually, he worked things through… Quite admirably, in fact.

Nevertheless, confusion can be debilitating, frustrating, and complex. For example, sometimes children have difficulty understanding instructions or directions, sifting through resources, or coping with too many tasks or assignments at once. Any or all of these circumstances can have a bearing on their sense of self. Whatever the source of children’s confusion, there are strategies to help smooth the way—by lessening complications, fortifying their resilience, equipping them to manage what has to be tackled, and creating new avenues for forward momentum. And, if they learn to embrace confusion, they may even find that it becomes a trigger for advancement and creative expression!

However, everybody handles confusion differently. That’s because we experience different types of confusion, we have different tolerance levels, and we have different dispositions—that is, states of mind or ways of thinking that cause us to think or act in certain ways. When children and teens get confused they may become anxious, or avoid doing things or going places, or procrastinate, and end up accomplishing very little. (Or, alternatively, they might use the ten strategies listed below to help them get past mystified muddling, and move into constructive or creative action modes.) 

Artist Paul Cezanne said, “We live in a rainbow of chaos.” So, think about ways to channel purpose and direction, and with that in mind, consider these ten tips for helping kids deal with confusion.

1. Simplify.  If something seems too confusing or complicated, break it down into segments, words, or actions that make more sense to you. You can also seek assistance or ask a few questions to get the information you need. For example, if I told you I was studying welwitschia (or tweeblaarkanniedood) you’d probably be confused. You might tune out because you don’t recognize or understand the words. Is it a foreign language? A game? An animal? (Actually, it’s a kind of tree, pictured above. It lives in the desert in Namibia, has a short trunk, grows to a meter in height, and each plant shoot only produces two foliage leaves—ever. And, welwitschia can survive up to 2000 years!) Once you get past the initial confusion and find out the basics, you’re set to learn more—and there’s no end to what you can do with knowledge.

2. Acknowledge that confusion is inevitable.  The best chefs create delicacies in kitchens that often appear to be hectic, confusing places. Writers frequently work at desks that are covered with haphazardly placed notes and drafts. Florists create flower arrangements at workbenches piled high with leaves, ribbons, twigs, and assorted blooms. These creative people do well because (or despite) of the confusion around them. They recognize and appreciate that it’s part of the real world, and an aspect of their creative environment, and they go about their business—productively. 

3. Take things step by step.  Progress is not always a straight or flawless line. In fact, it’s often a matter of taking two or three steps forward, and one or two steps back. Or sideways. It’s okay if you move in the “wrong” direction. Sometimes missteps take people into exciting new places, and toward unexpected destinations. Don’t let confusion or missteps stop you or hinder outcomes.

4. Get whatever information you need.  It’s helpful to have a clear idea of your goals and expectations. It can also be useful to record them, so you can refer to them more easily. Number the steps you plan to take to accomplish something amid any confusion. Be precise, and keep the information where you can see it.

5. Be patient with yourself.  Don’t rush. When you feel confused, take a few moments to purposefully pause, collect your thoughts, and cool off. Rushing may make things worse because you can inadvertently jumble things and become even more confused. 

6. Be flexible.  Be prepared to possibly readjust your intentions as you move forward with whatever you’re doing or working on. If you encounter confusing twists or turns, think of these as opportunities that can spur thought—and maybe even creativity. You may make some surprising or innovative discoveries along the way!

7. What works best for you?  There’s generally more than one way to do something or to get somewhere. Find your way. It may take a while longer, be laden with challenges, or be more or less interesting, but stay confident and resolve to take that first step though confusing circumstances.

8. Compare confusion to a jigsaw puzzle.  A big hodge-podge of puzzle pieces looks daunting, and sorting them out requires time, patience, trial, and error. Most importantly, allaying the jumbly confusion requires the willingness to confront the challenge. However, once you begin, and things begin to take shape, you’ll experience satisfaction. Find a few bits that fit together, and use that as a starting point toward success.

9. How to start?  You might begin with something that’s comfortable. Perhaps something that’s a priority, relatively easy, clarified, demonstrated, quiet, or requires less decision-making. Or you could adopt an approach taken by a role model, someone you trust. It’s also a good idea to make connections between what you have to do and what you already know, by building on tasks and knowledge you’ve already mastered, and moving on from there. This plan can help shape your productivity. (See the resources below for a link to an article on this topic.) 

10. Let confusion empower you.  You can let it discourage you and impede your progress—or you can decide to accept confusion. Try thinking about how confusion can motivate you to strive harder and strengthen your determination, and give you the impetus to create alternative approaches and solve problems. 

Award-winning film director Ron Howard said, “I'd rather risk confusion and stay creatively fresh and stimulated. I feel like I'm growing and challenging myself all the time.” In other words, it helps to be self-motivated, adaptive, and open to experience. In the whole scheme of things, the way you handle confusion is up to you!  

Reading and Resources 

Material in this article has been adapted in part from content on pp. 49 and 50 of the author’s most recent book, Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate (recipient of the Independent Book Publishers’ Association’s 2018 Silver Benjamin Franklin Award), and also from within pages of its predecessor, Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination. Readers can find additional information on aspects of child development and productivity by checking out the award-winning book Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, and also Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (written by both authors). To learn more about these books, and to acquire accessibility to a wide range of articles and links, go to Information about professional development workshops and speaker sessions with Dr. Foster can also be found at this website.

For excellent resources on supporting and encouraging children’s optimal development, see the wide assortment of material published by Great Potential Press at

To find out more about how to support kids when life is a whirlwind, check out Episode #36 of the New Family Podcast - A New Way of Thinking about Intelligence for a New World on the New Family Website at

On the Roots of Action website ( there’s an engaging article about resilience that contains 25 “kid-friendly quotes” to help foster children’s determination and self-confidence, and to inspire them when things get difficult. 

Mitzi Weinman’s book, It's About Time! Transforming Chaos into Calm, A to Z, has lots of practical tips for children, teens, and adults—ideas that are especially useful when life gets chaotic or confusing. For more information about Mitzi’s work, go to

For a Creativity Post article that focuses on the benefits of building upon prior knowledge, click here

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