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Top 5 Parent Concerns About Kids Wearing Masks

Will wearing a mask hurt your child’s mental health?

Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr
Will wearing a mask harm your child?
Source: Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr

The CDC is recommending that children over 2 wear masks when they’re not able to socially distance. Schools around the country are telling parents that, in order to return to in-person education, kids will have to wear masks.

It’s hard to predict what the world will look like in the fall, but the idea of having to make their children wear masks has many parents feeling worried. Here are some of the concerns I’ve been hearing and some ways to address them.

Concern #1: “Wearing a mask is so impersonal! Won’t my kid be frightened or even traumatized by being around masked people all day?”

Seeing everyone wearing masks is certainly a new experience for most of us, and one that we probably never imagined. But that doesn’t mean that it’s scary or traumatizing for kids.

As parents, we have a lot of impact on the meaning that children attach to their experiences. From about the age of 8 months, children look at others’ reactions to see how they should respond. Psychologists call this “social referencing.” For example, when kids see a dog for the first time, they look at the dog, then look up at their grown-ups to see, “Should I be scared, here?” If the grown-ups are calm or positive, it makes it easier for the kid to be calm or positive.

The same thing applies to masks: If we are calm and positive about wearing masks, it will be easier for our kids to be calm and positive about them, too. On the other hand, if our words or reactions say, “This is terrible! This is unbearable! You can’t possibly tolerate this!” we put an extra burden on our children.

For young children, play can help create a sense of comfort and control. Let your young child put masks on favorite stuffed animals. Look at photos of friends and family members, with and without masks, and have your child guess who each masked person is. Also, take photos of your child wearing a mask to help your child get used to the idea of wearing one.

With kids who tend to be anxious or sensory sensitive, it may help to ease into mask-wearing. Maybe your child could practice wearing a mask just for a short time and gradually expand that.

Concern #2: “Won’t masks interfere with communication? How will my kid read emotions or even hear the teacher clearly through masks?”

Obviously, having mouths covered is not ideal for communication. Seeing a teacher’s or a peer’s friendly smile feels good for kids. Fortunately, we communicate through a lot more than the shape of our mouths! Children will be able to hear teachers’ and classmates’ words and tone of voice. They’ll see expressions in eyes, eyebrows, and body language. They’ll also be able to infer emotional reactions from the situation.

Teachers are used to projecting their voices across a classroom. Moreover, teachers rarely use only spoken words to communicate instruction. They reinforce verbal instructions by demonstrating, offering books or handouts, and writing things on the board.

For children with hearing issues who must rely on lip reading, cloth masks with a clear plastic section over the lips may be a possibility.

However, most children will manage just fine communicating through regular masks. They may even learn to speak up more clearly in order to be heard. And, just as they did in pre-mask days, if they didn’t hear a teacher’s instruction, they can ask a peer or politely ask the teacher to repeat it.

Simóca & Annus/Flickr
Kids can get used to wearing masks.
Source: Simóca & Annus/Flickr

Concern #3: “Won’t masks be a distraction? How can kids and teachers concentrate on education if the teacher has to spend all day policing kids about wearing masks?”

Once classroom routines are established, teachers will not be spending large amounts of time policing kids about wearing masks. Just as it’s often easier for teachers to get a group of kids to clean up a classroom than it is for you to get your own kids to pick up their toys, positive peer pressure will make it easier for teachers to enforce mask-wearing. When kids look around and see that everyone else is wearing a mask, it will feel normal and expected for them to do so, too.

Children also tend to be righteousness about rule-following, so they’re likely to urge each other to wear masks and tattle if someone doesn’t.

Concern #4: “I have trouble getting my kids to put their shoes on. How am I going to get them to wear masks?”

Some kids will definitely be more challenging than others about wearing masks. Make sure your child understands why masks are important. This is a good time to talk to kids about values such as being willing to tolerate some personal discomfort in order to help our communities and keep everyone safe.

Give your child some choice about what kind of mask to wear. Young children might enjoy masks with the face of a tiger or panda, a fancy design, or a favorite character. Artistically-inclined kids might enjoy decorating their masks or choosing a cool fabric. Older kids are likely to have strong opinions about what style of mask is acceptable or dorky.

Comfort is key. Let your child try on several to see which ones feel best. Some kids prefer cup-shaped masks because they don’t touch the mouth. Others prefer soft cloth. Some find paper masks easier to breathe through. Some children like masks that go around the ears, while others don’t like the feel of elastic on their ears or prefer being able to adjust the fit with masks that tie around the head.

Consistency is also important. Just as children are used to wearing seatbelts and bike helmets, they can get used to wearing masks if that’s just what happens, day after day.

Concern #5: “I see adults wearing masks incorrectly. How are kids going to do it right?”

We’ve all seen adults walking around wearing masks below their nose or even below their chins, which doesn’t do a thing to prevent the spread of germs. Children need to learn how to wear masks correctly and safely, but it’s not that hard to do. The best way to teach your child to wear a mask correctly is to be a good role model.

To help your child understand how masks work, you may want to use the demonstration mentioned in a recent Washington Post article: Fill a bowl with water and sprinkle pepper on top. Sneeze without a mask and with a mask, so your child can see that the mask blocks the sneeze and prevents the pepper from moving.

Even with good instruction and modeling, kids are still going to make mistakes about wearing masks. They’ll forget and touch the front of their masks or even put their hands under their masks to scratch an itch or pick their nose. But imperfect mask-wearing is still far, far safer for everyone than not wearing masks, especially when used along with good hand-washing and social distancing practices.

Families are facing difficult decisions about how their children will be educated in the fall. What’s best for your child will depend on virus rates in your location, local school policies, your child’s needs, and your particular family circumstances. But for the vast majority of children, wearing a mask is not a cause for concern.

Related posts:
Helping Lonely Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic
How to Help Kids Talk About Feelings
Coping With Worries About the Coronavirus

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore

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