‘Ask the Expert’ Articles

When Tragedy Strikes…Again

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Question: There has been so much tragedy in the news lately. Even though I try to shield my kids from it, they always seem to know what’s going on. They hear about it at school or they read about it online. It’s so stressful for them because they don’t understand what they’re hearing. So my question is: What do we say to our kids when there is no logical explanation for what is happening in the world?

Answer: Indeed, these are unusually difficult times. With multiple large-scale hurricanes and the most deadly mass shooting in our nation’s history, parents have good reason to feel overwhelmed. As much as we would like to protect children from the harsh realities of today, it’s just not always possible. Inevitably, kids pick up on the news. Whether it’s the perceptive intuition that children are known for, or because they accidentally overheard adults talking at the supermarket, or perhaps they stumbled upon the information firsthand; most children know when something serious and scary is going on around them.

If you’ve noticed an increase in your child’s anxiety or a growing urgency to make sense of the insensible, you are not alone! This is happening in households all across America. Adults and children alike are searching – no yearning – for ways to reconcile the heartbreak we’ve recently witnessed in our country.

Here are a few things for parents to think about when news of devastation rattles your children:

Be honest with kids about your feelings.

It’s okay to let your children know that you are upset. Talk to them about the parts of this tragedy that are upsetting to you. Describe how you feel and what you are doing to cope with the news. Showing your vulnerability – being authentic and human – invites a deeper connection and opens the door for kids to express themselves more freely.

Clear up misinformation that may be exacerbating children’s concerns.

The rumor mill (especially in smaller communities) is a very real thing. One child might hear multiple versions of a particular incident from their peers, and parents would be wise to help sort out fact from fiction. Some parents may choose to deliver news of a disaster “preemptively” before their kids hear about it elsewhere. If this is your approach, remember to keep details to a minimum, explaining only the specifics that a child would need to know (based on their age; older children can cope with more complex realities). You might say something like, “Another horrible tragedy happened and innocent people got hurt. A lot of us are very upset today. You might hear about it at school, so I wanted you to know what’s going on. Let’s plan to talk later after we’ve had more time to process what happened.”

If possible, reassure children that they are not in immediate danger.

It is perfectly normal for children to develop fears of a similar tragedy happening to them or their loved ones. Adults can usually rationalize that this isn’t very likely, but children lack the advanced reasoning skills and logic involved with coming to that conclusion. While it may be common for kids to internalize a disaster, there are things parents can do to prevent children from getting stuck in a negative thinking pattern. If your child is prone to this type of worry, help them identify the specific steps your family takes to stay safe. Emphasize emergency plans that are already in place, such as what to do in case of a flood or fire. You might point out the many adults whose job it is to keep us safe (such as police, firefighters, and school teachers).

Find ways to take action!

We all feel a sense of powerlessness in the wake of a tragedy. Remember there is always something you can do to help victims, even if only on the smallest scale. For example, parents and kids can send letters of hope to elementary school students in an affected area. Or you might collect old backpacks and purses from around your house, fill them with small hygiene items and ship them to an organization that serves people in need. Some parents have collaborated with their schools to host a fundraiser in support of families impacted by an event. Mobilizing resources to ease the suffering of others is a tremendous way to cope and heal after a disaster.

Get help if the news becomes ‘too much’ for your child.

As I said before, we are facing uniquely difficult times. Bad things are happening around us, children’s questions are mounting, and parents are running out of answers. Some children have a tendency to internalize these tragedies more than others. If your child demonstrates the following behaviors, you may want to consult with your pediatrician or a mental health profession for more guidance:

  • Unusual sleep disturbance (i.e. nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep)
  • Refusing to eat or engage in schoolwork because they are “too upset”
  • Feeling depressed, numb, or guilty about what happened
  • Obsessive thoughts about safety, death, or the experiences of each victim
  • Significantly negative changes in mood, personality, and/or temperament

Today’s parents are facing the impossible task of trying to explain the unexplainable. Of course we don’t feel prepared to have these conversations with our kids. Each of us is struggling to find the right words. It’s difficult and uncomfortable and we’d rather not have to do it at all. But having the courage to talk to our children is the first step in raising a generation that will think and act with human kindness as their guiding principle. In the meantime, I hope you find comfort in this reassuring reminder from Mr. Rogers…

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” 





Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT 
is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two energetic boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.


Painfully Shy


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Question: My son has always been really shy. When he was a toddler, we thought it was just normal separation anxiety, but he hasn’t outgrown it yet. Now he’s in first grade, and it is painful getting him to interact with other people. How do we help him stop being so shy?

Answer: Parents often worry when their children are riddled with shyness. Although we commonly equate shyness with social anxiety, the two traits are actually quite different. (Parents may want to read this article, published by the Social Anxiety Institute, for more information about the differences between shyness and social anxiety disorder).

When shyness is a part of your child’s personality, try these tips for easing him out of his shell:

Combine support and encouragement…

…as you explore the feelings behind your child’s shyness. Is your son fearful of other kids? Is he embarrassed about something that happened last year? Or maybe he is lacking confidence in his social skills. Recognizing and acknowledging the underlying emotions can help kids move closer to stepping outside their comfort zone.

Give examples of overcoming shyness…

…when conversations about social distress arise. Let your son know the baby steps you have taken (or would have taken) to become more comfortable interacting with people. Don’t have any examples from your own experience? No problem! Check out these books to help kids overcome shyness:

Little Miss Shy (Little Miss Books #10) by Roger Hargreaves

Too Shy for Show-And-Tell by Beth Bracken

Why Are You Shy? by Paul M. Kramer

Practice interacting with people…

…by acting out scenarios that your son is likely to encounter throughout his dayFor example, you might pretend to be a classmate asking your son to play during recess. You can whisper some hints to him during the role play, offering ideas of how he might respond to the classmate. Repeating this exercise a few times can help boost his confidence and take away the uncertainty of what to say.

Tap into resources…

…that are designed for parents of shy children. Websites such as shakeyourshyness.com and the Shyness Research Institute provide education for parents to better understand their child’s shy personality.

Stay tuned in with your child…

…keeping an eye out for abrupt changes in mood or behavior. Some kids are born shy; it is in their nature and has been part of their disposition forever. On the other hand, if a child suddenly becomes so shy that they struggle with day-to-day activities, parents may want to speak with their pediatrician, school counselor, or a mental health professional for additional guidance.



Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two energetic boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.

Concerned about Kindergarten

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Question: My daughter is starting kindergarten in a few weeks and I think she’s really nervous about it. Now that it’s getting so close, she’s crying all the time and she says she doesn’t want to go. How can we help her be ready for school without freaking her out even more?

Answer: This is not uncommon! The build-up to kindergarten is a source of stress for many families. Rest assured, it’s totally normal for kids to feel nervous, and there are things parents can do to help.

Try these tips to build confidence and excitement in time for school:

  • Reinforce your child’s ability to succeed. Remind her that she has all the skills needed to be an amazing kindergartner – like courage, a kind personality, or a love of learning. Identifying your child’s unique strengths will empower her sense of self-confidence in the weeks before school.
  • Stay positive while still acknowledging anxious feelings. To validate her concerns, you might say, “Worrying is normal, but new adventures are also really fun and exciting.” This helps her feel heard while keeping the focus on the bright side. Dwelling too much on negative feelings may result in a reinforcement of fears.
  • Discuss logistics to ease specific worries. Talk with your daughter about what she can expect in a typical school day. You might ask her, “What do you think kindergartners do at school?” Use this opportunity to identify specific routines (circle time, lunch, recess, etc.) that she can become familiar with – and get excited about – before school starts.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher ahead of time (if possible). Many schools offer a “meet and greet” for incoming kindergartners. Take advantage of any and all back-to-school events that you are able to attend; this is a great way for your daughter to build comfort with her new environment. (And if you’re lucky, she might even make a new friend from her class!)
  • Read books that tell the story of kindergarten success. There are tons of great children’s books on this topic. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Tune-in to your potential anxiety. The start of kindergarten is a milestone for the whole family. Sometimes parents experience as much (if not more) anxiety than children as the big day approaches. Keep yourself in a mindset of growth and positivity, and don’t be afraid to use the tips above to ease your own worries about the upcoming school year.
  • Go with your intuition. If your gut says that your child’s anxiety is above and beyond what you feel is manageable, listen to your instincts and talk to an expert. Elementary school principals, school counselors, pediatricians, and mental health professionals can all help your family prepare for a successful transition.

Good luck to all of the parents embarking on this exciting adventure! As Dr. Seuss taught us, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two energetic boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.

Beyond Picky Eating

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Question: My son is six years old. He’s always been a picky eater, but now it’s affecting his growth. He never wants to eat what we’re eating and he won’t eat the “kid food” his brother eats. Sometimes he takes only a few bites at each meal. I’m so worried about him. I feel like I’m watching him starve. What do I do to get him to eat more?

Answer: Parents of extreme picky eaters know this struggle well. Some kids are born hungry; they will indiscriminately gobble up whatever food you put in front of them. For other kids, it’s not so easy. Erratic food jags aside, some children experience persistent low appetite, sensory impairment, and physical discomfort with eating, to the extent that growth and development may suffer. As parents, we know that our job is to nurture children and help them grow. But when our kids won’t eat – day after day, meal after meal – feelings of powerlessness and failure creep in. Mealtimes can turn into a battle of wills, with parents often on the losing end.


Here are some things to know if your child is beyond a picky eater:

Recognize the issue

Kids develop unhealthy relationships with food for a number of reasons. Try to identify what’s going on with your child to determine next steps and solutions. Parents should look for signs of sensory processing disorder (extreme sensitivity to certain tastes, textures, or colors), behavioral resistance (refusing to eat in order to gain control or command attention), or motor dysfunction (physical difficulty with chewing or swallowing). These issues typically require help from an expert, such as an occupational therapist, in order to be resolved. Talk to your pediatrician if this is the case with your child.

Offer choices without forcing food

Children love to have a sense of power, and food intake is one of the few things they can really control. Parents know that children can’t be forced to eat and doing so can lead to the unhealthy mealtime dynamics we’re trying to avoid. Choices, on the other hand, empower kids by supporting their natural desire to make decisions for themselves. Parents should be mindful of keeping choices within their own acceptable limits. For instance, children can decide if they want one meatball or two and if they’d prefer sauce on top of their spaghetti or in a bowl on the side. Notice that eating something entirely different from the family or not eating at all isn’t an option.

Make eating fun

When meals turn into battles, the joy of sitting down as a family slips away. Rather than concentrating on every bite your child is (or isn’t) eating, turn the family’s attention toward something different. (Think food races and silly eating noises!) Some kids need to warm-up to new foods without any pressure to actually eat them. This is especially true for children with sensory aversions who are unwilling to eat certain tastes or textures. Parents can set up a messy-play-area where children are invited to use any of their senses to experience foods without the expectation of eating. Emphasizing touch and smell over taste can help children feel at ease with new or unusual foods.

Other ideas to keep in mind:
  • Kids love to dip! Offer every condiment in the fridge as a possible choice for dipping.
  • Focus on healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil, to boost the content in your picky eater’s diet.
  • Sneak fruits and vegetables into other foods. Entire cookbooks have been written to help parents with this age-old trick. (Check out recipes in The Sneaky Chef or Deceptively Delicious for some really sneaky ideas.)
  • Make sure kids are hungry at mealtime. Too much snacking can destroy an appetite and reduce overall nutrient intake.
  • If nothing else works, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a feeding expert. Specially trained mental health counselors, occupational therapists, and speech/language pathologists can help improve your child’s eating.
  • Watch this video for more tips!


Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two energetic boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.